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A Guide to Pronouns and the Relationship Between Subject and Object

Updated on June 7, 2013

Misadventures in Grammar

On several occasions I have found myself before my computer, searching for an explanation of some element of English grammar. Unfortunately, these typically come in the form of a forum post or blog written by someone whose information stems not from a reliable source or pertinent education, but from what he or she feels is right. During my time as a student in the UK, I argued for several city blocks with a friend about the correct use of further and farther. “Tesco Metro is further away than Tesco Extra,” she said. Surprised by her conviction that she was using the correct term, I asked my peers whether they would use "further" or "farther" in reference to distance. All agreed with her: “further” sounded right, so it must be right. If people hear a given grammatical structure with sufficient frequency, they will believe that it is correct—such is the very basis of learning in general. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that the ignorantly dogmatic assertions on forum posts offer such wild misrepresentations.


In Eats, Shoots and Leaves (a thoroughly enjoyable read), author Lynne Truss expresses her notion during her years at a British grammar school in the early 1970s that students were expected to infer English grammar from their reading. Left uninstructed, she and her peers naturally made some false assumptions. Looking back at my own history, I think I learned the definitions of noun, verb, and adjective from playing Mad Libs at slumber parties. As a university student, when my German instructors used terms like “clause” and "indirect object" to explain German syntax, my peers and I returned blank stares. The failure of instruction in English grammar seems ubiquitous and, in my eyes, is largely to blame for the current breakdown of our language. It's not your (or my) fault for not knowing, but I feel that anyone who posts or blogs on the Internet—a medium with immense readership—has the potential to increases the problem exponentially, and therefore has the responsibility to use the English language well. There are resources to bettering one's understanding of English grammar; this hub is one of them.


Though not beneficial to my social skills (hence my officious corrections of my friends’ grammar), my preference for reading to social interactions as a child helped me to acquire a more accurate sense for English grammar than that which most profess. As a result, I winced at the misuse of allude for elude on one popular Hub. I was shocked to find in another Hub, which strove to educate readers on the art of writing, that its author seemed to consider commas adequate substitutes for colons, semi-colons and the rest of the punctuation mark ensemble. Nonetheless, my own grammar is not perfect, for I too lacked instruction. Fortunately, many guides are available to help, such as the bible of English grammar: The Chicago Manual of Style. Of course, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style has also occupied a prime spot on my bookshelf for years; I consider this the “pocket bible” of English word choice, and I encourage anyone who cares about words to buy it immediately.


To offer interested individuals accurate and easily accessible information about the English language, I intend to write a series of Hubs whose grammatically-correct grammar guidance derives from information presented in respected books on the subject. Many will be geared toward amending frequent errors proliferating across the Internet.


Reading Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage with my kitten, Wilmington.
Reading Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage with my kitten, Wilmington.

Contractions

For grammatical structures with such simple rules, contractions and their homophones are mistakenly interchanged with surprising regularity. A contraction is simply a shortening of a phrase into a single word. The apostrophe is ordinarily placed where letters have been omitted; in the case of contractions that are formed irregularly, such as won't or gonna, a dictionary should be used for verification.


Common contractions:

  • It is (or has) → It’s
  • Who is (or has) → Who’s
  • There is (or has) → There’s
  • They are → They’re
  • You are → You’re


Possessive homophones (pronouns and determiners) of common contractions:

  • Its
  • Whose
  • Theirs
  • Their
  • Your


Examples of possessive pronouns (or determiners) and contractions used correctly:

  • They’re on their way.
  • Whose turn is it? It’s your turn.
  • Who’s coming to dinner?
  • You’re on the air.


So if I read, “Its snowing,” I will wonder to whom the snow belongs. Obviously that would not make sense, as “snowing” cannot be the possessed, but it certainly evinces the author’s illiteracy and impedes my reading of the sentence.


Essential Grammar References

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition

The Chicago Manual of Style is the bible of English usage. I wish that all writers and editors would reference it. It instructs readers on the correct use of stylistic elements, such as punctuation and formatting, as well as spelling matters. For example, when is it appropriate to italicize? Should a given compound word be open, closed or hyphenated?

 
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford Language Classics Series)
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford Language Classics Series)

Fowler has such a direct yet captivating voice. He explains each entry with excellent, illustrative examples, so that a reader comes to understand clearly what a 'relative pronoun' and how it's relevant, even if it seems foreign or intimidating initially.

 
The Elements of Style (4th Edition)
The Elements of Style (4th Edition)

I bought Strunk and White's fantastic little book five years ago for a creative writing course. I was quickly amazed that I had never encountered it before. I wish it were a mandatory read for high school students, given to them in the ninth grade, so that misunderstandings about commonly used words could be corrected as soon as (or before) they start.

 

Amusing Guides

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd Edition
Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd Edition

This wonderfully witty book on modern English grammar is my primary source for this Hub. O'Connor has great voice, making this a genuinely enjoyable read.

 
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Lynne Truss is a woman after my own heart; her descriptions of the demise of modern grammar are dismaying to those of us to yearn to protect our dear language from abuse. At the same time, her remarks made me laugh out loud several times.

 

Subject and Object

The subject does something.

  • Examples: I, you, he, she, it, we, they
  • Who refers to the subject.


The object has something done to him/her/it.

  • Examples: me, you, him, her, it, us, them
  • Whom refers to the object.


I shall tackle the use of pronouns for subjects and objects according to common sentence structures.


Word Order I: Subject verb preposition object

Prepositions introduce an object that receives the subject’s action. They often link the objects to the subjects by describing their spatial or temporal relationships.

Common prepositions: of, to, in, beside, at, during, beneath, above

Example: Sally (subject) looked (verb) at (preposition) Fred (object).

  • Replacing the nouns with pronouns: She looked at him.
  • In reference to the object of the sentence: Whom did she look at? [At] him.
  • In reference to the subject of the sentence: Who looked at him? She did.


Word Order II: Subject verb subject

A pronoun that directly follows a verb should take the form of a subject so long as it does not receive the apposite action.

Example: Who hit the car? It was I [who hit the car].

  • The pronoun is "I" (a subject) rather than "me" (an object) because It=I in the sentence. The pronoun would only be an object here if action were being done to it.


Word Order III: Subject verb object

If the pronoun following the verb receives the action, then it is the object.

Example: Will you take me to the store with you? No, [you] let me go alone this time.


Word Order IV: Subject verb conjunction subject

Conjunctions are tricky little devils. As the name implies, they connect two parts of a sentence. In general, they should be followed by subjects rather than objects.*

Coordinating conjunctions (connect equal parts): and, or, but, so

Subordinating conjunctions (connect unequal parts): after, although, as, because, before, if, since, than, unless, until, when, while (and many more)

Subordinating conjunctions are followed by a subject and a verb (sometimes merely implied), thereby forming a subordinate clause.

Examples:

  • Sam went to bed before I [did].
  • We ate dinner and [we] drank wine.
  • Fred was running late but he arrived on time.


*Beware: Some of the words listed above as conjunctions may serve as prepositions, in which cases they should be followed by objects. Determining whether the pronoun should refer to the subject or the object is based on the meaning of the sentence.


Let us dissect the following sentence.

George (subject) visits (verb) the park (object) more often than (conjunction or preposition) _____ (subject or object).

If you want to compare the absent pronoun to the subject, "George," then it too must be a subject. The meaning would be: He visits the park more often than I do. In this case, than is used as a conjunction. This is the sentence with the relevant pronoun:

  • George visits the park more often than I.

If you want to compare the pronoun to the object, the park, then it must also be an object. The meaning would be: He visits the park more often than he visits me. In this case, than is used as a preposition. With the pronoun:

  • George visits the park more often than me.


Here’s a more complex example:

Dad (subject) gave (verb) Carry (indirect object) a present (direct object) before (conjunction or preposition) _____ (subject or object).

As with the previous example, if you want to compare the pronoun to the subject, "Dad," then it too must be a subject. The meaning would be: Dad gave Carry a present before I gave her a present. With the pronoun, it looks like this:

  • Dad gave Carry a present before I [did].

Because this sentence has both a direct object ("a present") and an indirect object ("Carry"), using a pronoun as an object will create ambiguity. This stems from a grammatical deficiency in the English language: no differentiation between direct and indirect object pronouns. See how the meager first-person object pronoun, me, fares in this situation:

  • Dad gave Carry a present before me.
  • If "me" is compared to the indirect object ("Carry"), then the meaning would be: Dad gave Carry a present before he gave me one.
  • If "me" is compared to the direct object ("a present"), then the meaning would be: Dad gave Carry a present before he gave me to her. This would be a strange sentence, of course, so readers would assume that the pronoun refers to the indirect object. In other cases, however, the ambiguity could hinder a reader's interpretation of the sentence.


Myself, Yourself, Himself, Herself, Itself, Yourselves, Themselves

Myself (and its self-mates) is not an ordinary pronoun, like me and I. It is used either for emphasis or to refer to the subject.

Examples:

  • I made the pie myself.
  • I consider myself to be a compassionate person.

Please, never use it in place of an ordinary pronoun. Writing, Sam visits myself often, evinces the writer’s illiteracy.


Which punctuation mark are you least confident using?

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Misuse of They, Them, and Their for He/She, Him/Her and His/Her

They, them and their are plural. I cannot imagine that most people are under the false impression that they could refer to a single individual, yet the misuse of plural pronouns in vernacular speech has spread even to written English. As clunky as it may be to write he or she when the sex of a subject is unknown, they is no substitute for a singular pronoun. It would be such a relief if our convenient asexual pronoun (it) could be applied to a person, but, sadly, that is not the case. Thus, I am stuck with sounding illiterate in my native language, or fumbling around awkwardly for syntax that avoids the clunkiness of something like, If anyone calls, have him or her leave his or her number and say that I will get back to him or her as soon as possible.


How Well Do You Know Your Pronouns?


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Notes on My Grammar Usage

Some of the more erudite readers of this Hub may wonder at my use of italics and quotation marks when referring to a word as the word itself, rather than using it functionally. I consulted The Chicago Manual of Style for the distinctive treatment of words in this case. According to this authority, the terms in question are commonly set in italics:

  • Allude and elude are not interchangeable.

Quotation marks are also used for this purpose, and may be preferable when referencing spoken language:

  • I asked my peers whether they would use "further" or "farther" in reference to distance.

As you see, it is indeed a complicated, often subjective matter. I hope my stylistic choices do not deter my readers.


In the original version of this Hub, which I completed using Microsoft Word, I color-coded elements of example sentences for emphasis and clarification. As I later discovered, HubPages does not allow such color usage; thus I was left to use italics to accent certain terms. I hope this only minimally impedes coherence.


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    • Bumpsysmum profile image

      Bumpsysmum 4 years ago from Cambridgeshire

      Yayhaaay, at last, someone who agrees with me! I despair that our grammar has been tweaked and changed so much that it's now almost disappeared. We seem to be using completely different rules of grammar now.

      My pet hates are:

      The apostrophe in the wrong place

      The use of 'myself/yourself' as you outlined above

      The new 'street speak'

      I can feel my skin prickle at the memory of call centre agents telling me in a recorded message - I have called yourself to ask you if you would phone myself at your convenience.

      Apart from the obvious, myself/yourself, I don't live in a toilet!

      Sorry, I needed a rant!

      Great Hub.

    • Jamie Brock profile image

      Jamie Brock 4 years ago from Texas

      I know I could use some help in this area. I tend to write exactly what I am thinking with no regard to correct punctuation and grammar. Thank you for sharing this. I am sure I will be referring back to this hub from time to time.

    • Dannie Rae profile image
      Author

      Danielle Schumaker 4 years ago from Boulder, CO

      Hi Jamie,

      Some of the smartest people I know are grammatically-challenged. Fortunately, it's not a sentence. I'm glad you are interested in writing as well as you can.

      Hi Bumpsysmum,

      It's nice to meet another stickler. My pet hate is probably the use of "literally" in place of "figuratively" or "virtually." Recently I heard a teenaged girl on the bus assert loudly that she was literally going to punch her mom in the face when she got home. I longed to say, "I'm figuratively going to punch you in the face!" Misuse of apostrophes always makes me cringe, of course; it's as though people don't know where and when to add an apostrophe, so they arbitrarily throw one in.

    • Bumpsysmum profile image

      Bumpsysmum 4 years ago from Cambridgeshire

      The problem is that it is now accepted practice in UK to put the apostrophe before the last letter of the word regardless. This is because it was deemed too difficult for students to understand the rules regarding the apostrophe, so now they are just dropped in. E.g. If you were talking about "my sisters' hat" it is now acceptable to put " my sister's hat", it makes me laugh because I read that as "my sister is hat".

      We managed to grasp the rules 60 years ago, so I feel it is quite demeaning to modern students to assume that they can't do the same, it isn't that hard.

      It's a shame because our language is deteriorating at a pace that will make it unrecognisable in 50 years.

      That said the spell check, on Hubpages, constantly tries to correct my spelling to the US standard. It likes to leave the 'O' out of colour, or put a 'Z' into unrecognisable instead of the 'S' :-) forgive the smiley face, it made me smile!

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