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Grammar: Proper Pronoun Usage 101
The proper use of pronouns has all but ceased in our modern age. In truth, common vernacular has begun to create a new rule with regards to proper usage here- mainly, that there is no rule. Furthermore, the proper use of pronouns has even accrued a sort of negative stigma in our modern speech; it is seen as stuffy, even obtuse in some cases. This is not quite the travesty that some linguistic purists might make it out to be. If the goal of conversation is communication, and if understanding is achieved, then what have we really lost? Yet, there are instances in which one might need to adhere to proper usage, particularly in scholarly writing and, perhaps, in formal interviews, etc. Thus, I have compiled a quick guide to proper pronoun usage. My goal here is to make the rules as simple and accessible as possible. So, without further rambling, let us begin.
To begin, I will give a brief list of the pronouns most commonly used in the English language:
First Person Singular: I, me
First Person Plural: we, us
Second Person Singular and Plural: you
Third Person Singular: he/she, him/her, it
Third Person Plural: they, them
Relative Pronouns Relevant Here: who, whom
This does not compile the entire list of pronouns in common usage. The purpose of this essay is, particularly, to address confusion surrounding when to use particular Personal and Relative Pronouns (he vs. him, who vs. whom, I vs. me, etc.).
First, of the common pronouns above, some are subject pronouns and others are object pronouns. The simple difference between the two is that a subject pronoun commits and action while an object pronoun receives an action.
Subject Pronouns: I, we, you, he, she, it, they, who
Object Pronouns: me, us, you, him, her, it, them, whom
Examples: I gave the book to him.He gave the book to me.
In this example the subject pronoun is used to signify who is giving. The use of the object pronoun indicates to whom the book is given, or who is receiving. This can be tricky at times. Often the same action can be communicated with either the subject or the object pronoun in use, depending on how the sentence is structured and where emphasis is placed.
Examples: I got the book.The book was given to me.
This is clearly the same scenario, the same action. The difference here is that the first sentence places emphasis on the reception of the book, whereas the second sentence places emphasis on the giving of the book. In the first sentence, the person represented by the pronoun I is performing the action by getting the book. In the second sentence, an unidentified other is performing the action of giving the book, and the person represented by the pronoun me is the object, or target, of that action.
Making the distinction between subject and object is the most vital part of correct pronoun usage. Once one comes to an understanding of the distinction between subject and object pronouns, one only need remember which pronouns are assigned to which roles and the meat of the work is done.
This completes a majority of the initial discussion of proper pronoun usage. I will close with a few more examples, for the sake of clarification, and with a brief tip concerning multiple pronouns appearing in the same sentence.
Examples: For Whom the Bell Tolls I gave her the book.Who tolled the bell? She gave the book to him. To whom did she give it? We ate. We were eaten. You ate us.
Warning: some of the most confusing pronoun usage situations appear when multiple pronouns are used in the same sentence. When dealing with a situation like this, omit one of the pronouns to see how the sentence would sound with only one, and then do the same with the other. It is much easier to judge proper usage in a simplified sentence.
Not: The books were given to her and I.
To simplify this sentence, omit the pronoun her and rewrite the sentence.
What you are left with: The books were given to I.
This is most obviously incorrect. So, we replace I with me and form the sentence:
The books were given to me. --> The books were given to her and me.
This, though it may sound stuffy if said in everyday conversation, is correct pronoun usage. It may not be imperative that you speak in such a way, but most people looking at essays and articles will expect this kind of attention to detail and understanding of basic grammar.
I hope this article was helpful. Good luck.