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Those Pesky Pronouns: How To Use Them Correctly

Updated on April 12, 2011

Pop Quiz: Choose the correct answer: The boss rewarded Bob and (I, me.) Are you sure? If not, get rid of the word Bob. Now what do you think? No question about it: "The boss rewarded me is the correct answer. Whenever there is a proper noun and a personal pronoun, try this technique, and you'll almost always make the correct choice. There is something to be said, however, for learning the reason why certain rules apply.

Granted, sometimes the rules of language usage don't make a whole lot of sense, but in the case of personal pronouns (I, me, you, he, him, she, her, we, us, they. them), the rules are fairly logical. If the pronoun comes after a linking verb (am, is, are, was, were, will be) it will be in the nominative case, just like the subject: "The winner was she." That probably doesn't sound right. If you're not sure whether the pronoun is correct, turn the sentence around: "She was the winner." Now you're certain; she is the correct answer. This is the only situation in which a pronoun in the nominative case will come after the verb. If a pronoun comes after any other other verb or after a preposition( to, in, of, with, near, beyond, beneath, etc.), it must be in the objective case: "The council elected her president." "The green team won, and the prize was awarded to them."

Other confusing usage problems occur with both interrogative and relative pronouns. When used as a subject, an interrogative pronoun must be in the subjective case (makes sense, doesn't it?): "Who was chosen for the running contest?" (Who is the subject; was chosen is the verb.) When used as an object, the objective case must be used: "For whom did you vote?" (The subject is you; the verb is did vote; whom is the object of the preposition "to".) "Who did you vote for," then, is incorrect for two reasons: The first word in the sentence is NOT the subject, and for is a preposition, so it can not "dangle" by itself; it needs an object, in this case, whom.

A relative pronoun, on the other hand, starts a relative clause, which can never begin a sentence. (Remember, a clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb. A relative clause relates back to another word in the sentence, usually the word that precedes it.  It also is a dependent clause, because it depends on the rest of the sentence to make sense.) Again, the correct choice of a relative pronoun depends on its usage in the clause. If it is used as the subject of the clause, the subjective case is necessary: "Over there stands the boy who had ten no-hitters last season." Who is the subject of the clause; had is the verb. If it is used as an object, the objective case is in order: "Over there stands the boy whom the team chose MVP." The subject of this relative clause is team, the verb is chose, and the object is whom.

An entirely different type of usage problem occurs with indefinite pronouns: everybody, everyone, somebody, someone, anybody, anyone, nobody, no one.Choose the correct answer: " Everyone in the class did (his/her, their) work."If you answered their, you're in tune with about 90% of most respondents. You're also incorrect It would seem that the presence of every in the word indicates the need for a plural modifier. However, the presence of one cancels that. In all cases, one indicates just that and signifies that the singular modifier usage is appropriate: 'Did anyone do his work today?" The same is true with indefinite pronouns that end with -body: "Did anybody do her work today?" Again, the modifier their would not be correct in this case. Remember it this way: How many bodies do you have? Just one, correct? That's why indefinite pronouns that end in -body count as one and, therefore, take a singular modifier (my, his, her, its).

That brings me to another glaring error in pronoun usage: the use of it's as a modifier. It's always means it is. It's is a contraction, never a modifier. Therefore, a sentence like, "The cat licked it's paw is not correct. Ever. Why not? It literally means, "The cat licked it is paw." That's why. the correct usage is, "The cat licked its paw." Never say, "The baby licked its fingers, though. In this case, the reason is that the baby is a girl or boy, not an object, so the correct usage would be, "The baby licked his (or her) fingers."The same holds. true for that: "The man that called was a stranger." Again, just as in the case of the baby, a man is a person, not a thing, so the sentence should read, "The man who called was a stranger." As noted above, if the relative pronoun is used as an object, this is correct: "The man whom I called was a stranger." Only use that when referring to an object: "The book that I enjoyed reading the most is now a best seller.

Pronoun usage can be tricky, but when you know some of the reasons for the rules, the rules make much more sense. So the next time someone calls and says, "Is Susie (or Jack, or Jill, or whoever) there?" answer with assurance, "This is she." If the caller snickers and says, "Don't you mean her?" merely reply, "No, she, or if you prefer, it is I." At that point, the caller will be either shocked or impressed, hopefully the latter. If you prefer to use the more informal forms (which "sound right" but are grammatically incorrect) around your friends in order to avoid sounding obnoxious, that's okay; just make sure that your pronoun usage is correct in your writing, where it might be graded or judged.


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    • PatriciaTL profile image

      PatriciaTL 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley

      I'm glad you found the hub useful, Joyce. The title "An Exceptional Friendship" is not only grammatically correct; it also sounds like it would be an interesting read!

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 5 years ago from Southern Nevada

      Great helpful hub. I stuck trying to find out if this title is correct 'An Exceptional Friendship', your input will be totally appreciated.

      Voted up useful and very interesting, Joyce.

    • PatriciaTL profile image

      PatriciaTL 6 years ago from Lehigh Valley

      That's so true, Trish. I've noticed this incorrect usage quite a bit on TV and in a lot of song lyrics.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 6 years ago from The English Midlands

      It's amazing, though, just how many people will consider the speaker illiterate if he says 'the boss rewarded Bob and me'.

      It is because they are so used to being corrected, while at school, for starting a sentence with 'Bob and me ...'