Basics of writingGrammar

Pronouns: tricky agreements and stumbling blocks—PART 1

From Rick:

Last time I talked about nouns and the issues we might run into with them when it comes to figuring out verb agreements.

Most of us won’t have a problem with the following sentence:

The legal team at Smith, Jones, and Doe is your best choice for personal injury attorneys.

But when we use just the name of the firm, some of us might have doubts. Which of the following should we write?

Smith, Jones, and Doe is your best choice for personal injury attorneys.


Smith, Jones, and Doe are your best choice for personal injury attorneys.

“Smith, Jones, and Doe” is the name for the law firm irrespective of how many names are listed. It is ONE company, and the singular verb “is” is appropriate.

But sometimes we’ll see a deviation from this rule:

“Jackson and Sons are there to help with all your appliance repairs.”

It’s still a single company name, but using the plural verb emphasizes the individuals in the company and makes it more personable in an advertising light. So, while “are” is technically incorrect usage, we can allow the deviation in an informal context.

We recognize that “I should have gone with my friends” is correct, while “I should have went with my friends” is improper grammar. Nevertheless, some people do speak this way either by habit or by accident. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said (and written) “between you and I” when it should be “between you and me” because “between” is a preposition that takes “me” and not “I” after it. Would you any of you say “Keep this a secret between we” instead of “Keep this a secret between us”? “Between we” sounds wrong, but for some reason “between you and I” doesn’t sound as wrong.

I think the problem isn’t one of grammar ignorance so much as not being conscious of it when we speak. What tends to confuse is putting that “and” in there.

Greg handed me the box. “From me to you.”

Greg handed me the box. “From Sheila and I to you.”

See what I mean? We’ll hear people say that because somehow that “and” makes us forget that we still need the objective form of the pronoun.

Right here, let’s do a review of terminology. We have subject, object and possessive forms of pronouns in English, based on whether they are the subject(called nominative doing the acting in the sentence, the object (called objective), being acted upon, or expressing possession (called genitive).

Anyone who missed (or chose to ignore) my previous post on the English possessive, might want to check that out:


Here are the pronoun types I’m going to discuss in this post:

NOMINATIVE: I, you, he, she, it, we, they

OBJECTIVE: me, you, him, her, it, us, them

GENITIVE: my/mine, your/yours, his, her/hers, its, our/ours, their/theirs

Note that “it” and “you” are the same in nominative and objective forms and that “his” and “its” only have one genitive form.

The difference between the two genitive forms is that the first form is used with a noun (my book, our house) and the second is used as an independent pronoun (the book is mine, the house is ours) to refer back to a noun.

Objective pronouns are always used after a preposition, and I think sometimes we forget that “between” is a preposition (so are “among” and “like”). Most of the time we only see these objective pronouns used incorrectly in informal situations, but when it comes to fiction, we frequently need to bend and twist the grammar based on how our characters talk. Our characters’ dialogue should reflect their personalities, education, and environment. Street kids rarely talk as if they’re Harvard educated, and if they do, then there had better be a good reason for it or something behind the character that the reader has not yet seen.

Let’s push that “and” problem a little further and into the realm of possessives where again we see some interesting variations.

If I’m referring to a car I own, I would say “my car.” If I’m referring to the car my wife owns, I’ll say “my wife’s car.” Likewise, we have no problem saying “My wife’s car and my car are both Buicks.”

What if I want to eliminate the first “car” and make the second one a plural?

“My wife’s and my cars are both Buicks.” Technically, from a grammatical standpoint, this says that my wife and I each own a car separately.

If we both own the cars jointly, the construction changes. Let’s look at a different example.

John and Lisa are married and had two kids together: “John and Mary’s kids.”

If instead, John and Lisa are married but each had kids from a previous marriage but not together: “John’s and Mary’s kids all live together.” We use the possessive form of both John and Mary to show their separate “possession” of kids.

Therefore, following the example of “John and Mary’s kids” if my wife and I jointly own each of our cars, we should say “My wife and my cars are Buicks.” But I’m sure you would all agree that this is an extremely awkward sentence and that no one in their right mind would ever say that. We’d recast the sentence “The cars that my wife and I both own are Buicks.” Or maybe we’d be tempted to do this:

“My wife and I’s cars are Buicks.”

How many of you have heard someone say this? I have, and I’ve seen it written. In a novel I’m currently editing one of the characters says this:

“I think it’s time that I told you about Rita and I’s relationship.”

And as the editor, I’m not going to change it because the character saying it might very well talk that way. The character repeats it later, and later on another character uses the same construction. I will ask the author about keeping it. However, both of the characters could well be expected to talk that way, and since it only appears three times in the novel, a reader should be able to accept it as legitimate dialogue.

This leads me to point out one difference between a bad editor and a good editor. A bad editor would change that dialogue; a good one will leave it but ask the author about keeping or changing it, depending on how the character should speak (versus the author making an inadvertent grammatical error).

A couple of other common pronoun problems exist. The first deals with which pronoun to use after a form of “to be” (is/was). When someone calls on the phone for you and you’re the one answering, how do you respond?: “This is he.” or “This is him.”

Or how do you respond to someone asking who is responsible for something?: “It’s I/he/she” or “It’s me/him/her”

In this case, while the first construction is considered correct, it’s also a very formal or refined response. Very few of us would answer “It’s I.” We’d likely use the second construction.

The other problem is which pronoun to use after “than”:

My sister looks more like my mother than I/me.

The correct pronoun depends on what’s being compared. If the sentence means that she looks more like my mother than she looks like me, then “me” is correct. On the other hand, if the intent is that she looks more like my mother than I look like my mother, then “I” is the pronouns to use. The Chicago Manual of Style points out that it should not be left to the reader to understand this difference and that the better way is to recast the sentence so the meaning is clear:

My sister looks more like my mother than I do.
My sister looks more like my mother than she looks like me.

This is a good rule for all writers to remember. Never make the reader guess what you mean based on understanding such grammar differences.

I certainly haven’t covered all the types of pronouns. Several others exist:

Reflexive: myself, yourself, himself, herself, ourselves, themselves
Demonstrative: this, that, these, those
Reciprocal: each other, one another
Interrogative: who, whom, whose
Indefinite: another, any, both, each, none, some, somebody, everyone (to list just a few of them)

I’ll cover some of these in another post because there are usage issues with some of them (such as whether “none” takes a singular or plural verb) as well as misuses of the reflexive pronouns.


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