Pronouns: tricky agreements and stumbling blocks—PART 2
In Part 1 of this two-part series I discussed subject, object, and possessive (genitive) pronouns. You might want to check that out if you missed it.
In that post I mentioned seeing sentences like the following:
“I think it’s time that I told you about Rita and I’s relationship.”
Recently I one of the characters in one episode of the new Lost in Space series say “you’s” in a possessive sense. Unfortunately, I didn’t jot down the sentence, but I’ll concoct one to illustrate:
“This is important for your family and you’s survival.”
The character saying it was an intelligent teen, and I was rather surprised that the show’s writers used it. My point is that while we might not want to forgive script writers for such egregious misuse, we must accept that such speech is nevertheless realistic (although we hope it won’t become pervasive), and that some of the characters in our writing might realistically be expected to talk this way.
But let’s move ahead. I mentioned some other types of pronoun classes in Part 1 and promised to talk about some of them.
REFLEXIVE: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves
DEMONSTRATIVE: this, that, these, those
RECIPROCAL: each other, one another
INTERROGATIVE: who, whom, whoever, whomever, whose
INDEFINITE: another, any, both, each, none, some, somebody, everyone (I give a more complete list later on)
The REFLEXIVE pronouns have two uses. In the first use, they refer back to the subject:
—I injured myself while trying to cut down a tree.
—Kayla took it on herself to ask Ryan to the dance.
—My baby brother learned how to dress himself last week.
In the second use, the reflexive pronouns act as intensifiers:
—He read the book himself.
—I cut down the tree myself.
The reflexive pronouns in the second case stress the subject but don’t refer back to what happened to the subject.
A common mistake happens when the reflexive pronouns perform neither of these functions.
—My coworkers and myself agree that office is too cold today.
(Better: “my coworkers and I”)
—Please send the email to my boss and myself.
(Better: “my boss and me”)
I’ll skip over DEMONSTRATIVE pronouns because we rarely have problems with those (and note that “those” here is a demonstrative pronoun). Just be sure you understand when these 4 words are pronouns as opposed to demonstrative adjectives.
—This is what I came for. (pronoun)
—This concert is what I came for. (adjective)
These are beautiful flowers. (pronoun)
—These flowers are beautiful. (adjective)
The RECIPROCAL pronouns lead to occasional problems, so a couple of notes are relevant. Traditionally “each other” is used to refer to two people only, while “one another” is used for more than two. Both pronouns can have possessive forms. Note where the apostrophes go in the possessive forms.
—As brothers, he and I always protected each other.
—James and I always protected each other’s sisters.
—The members of our writer’s group always help one another with their writing.
—The members of our writer’s group critique one another’s work.
The INTERROGATIVE pronouns have notoriously given people fits. Fortunately, “whom” is slowly passing out of all but formal writing. And to our ears “whom” can sound stilted today.
While you might still find some people correcting your speech and some overzealous editors correcting your writing, you can point out that “whom” is slowly working its way out of the language, and you may want to remind your editor that “whom” should be reserved for the dialogue of only educated or formal characters. Likewise, if your street kid character throws in a “whom” where a “who” should be, your editor should accept it as the character’s (not your) error and should ask you if you did it on purpose.
But for those who still want to get the two forms correct, consider the following sentences. Which are correct, and which are incorrect?
(1) Whom should I say is calling?
(2) I’ll talk to whomever will listen.
(3) Whoever you choose will suit me.
I bet most of you were fooled by at least one of these. As it turns out ALL of them are INCORRECT (or at best poor sentences). Let me explain the problems.
In (1), the inverted order of the questions fools us. Let’s simplify the sentence to “Who is calling?” Likely no one would say “Whom is calling?” because it’s clear that “who” is the subject of the sentence. It’s the “should I say” insertion that leads to confusion and makes us think it’s an object form rather than a subject form.
Sentence (2) is a bit less clear because we see that “to” in there and draw the conclusion that “whom” should be used because it follows a preposition, as the example below demonstrate.
—To whom did you speak?
—With whom did you eat lunch today?”
However, if we analyze sentence (2), we see that what follows “to” is not the pronoun but a clause with “whoever as the subject of the clause: “Who will listen to me?” “Whoever will listen if I speak?” We wouldn’t say “Whom will listen to me?” Therefore, “whoever” not “whomever” is correct in (2).
And sentence (3) has the same issue as (2) with a clause, but in that clause the pronoun is the object (requiring “whom”): “You choose whomever.”
After those examples, we should all be glad that “whom” is fading into the sunset and that you can use “who/whoever” a bit more freely than you could in the past. I’m sure that the purists among you are still cringing and a few might even be crying over the demise of their beloved “whom.”
Before I leave this section, let me point out that some still confuse “whose” and “who’s” (a contraction of “who” + “is”). It’s easy if you remember the rule that NONE of the personal or interrogative pronouns ever take apostrophes.
This rule will also help you avoid mistakes like “you’s” and “I’s” and “it’s” (when you really mean “its” as a possessive instead of the contraction of “it is).
That leaves us with the INDEFINITE pronouns. These pronouns, like other pronouns, refer to people, places, objects, and things, but they don’t point to a specific one. Examples: another, anyone, nothing, many, any, some.
We typically group the indefinite pronouns by whether they take a singular verb, a plural verb, or either one, depending on what they refer to.
The first point to note with the indefinite pronouns is that the majority of them take SINGULAR verbs. A few take plural verbs, and a handful can take either, depending on the context.
Here’s are the lists grouped by the verbs they take.
ALWAYS TAKE SINGULAR VERBS: another, anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, little, much, neither, nobody, no one, nothing, one, other, somebody, someone, something
ALWAYS TAKE PLURAL VERBS: both, few, many, others, several
MAY TAKE SINGULAR OR PLURAL VERBS: all, any, more, most, none, some, such
Here’s a good rule to remember: Indefinite pronouns ending in -one or -body are always singular (with only a couple of exception cases).
NOTE: The spelling “no-one” is an alternative spelling fairly common in British English, but it is considered incorrect in American English, and “noone” is always an incorrect spelling.
—Each is responsible for his own fate.
—Is anybody here?
—Everything is possible.
—Both were responsible for the failure.
Much is possible with a college education.
I found two solutions, but either works.
I found two solutions, and both work.
These examples are clear enough, but I did say that there a couple of rare exceptions to the singular/plural rules.
When one of the singular indefinite pronouns carries a plural sense, then the plural verb is used, as the examples below illustrate.
—Everyone hopes for success, but they know not everyone succeeds.
—Nobody was able to identify the shooter because they’d been watching mayor’s speech.
Now, what about those that can take either the singular or the plural? Most of the time it’s easy to figure out which verb to use.
—All the building was painted green.
—All the chairs were broken.
But sometimes it’s not clear which one to use. “None” often causes confusion. Generally, when a singular noun follows, or the meaning is “not one” or “no part,” use a singular verb; when a plural noun follows, or the sense is “not any,” use the plural verb.
—None of the grass has been cut. (no part)
—None of my neighbors’ lawns were cut this week. (not any)
-The jury decided that none of the men was guilty. (not one, as singular defendants, or to emphasize the singularity)
-The jury decided that none of the men were guilty. (not any of the group of defendants)
—Fortunately none of the actors were on stage when then spotlight fell. (not any)
—Even years after his death, none of his books have been published. (meaning “not any” of them)
Sometimes, for emphasis, we might use a singular verb where a plural would be expected, although it may sound a bit formal or awkward.
—Even years after his death, none of his books has been published. (to emphasize that not even one of them has been published so far)
I certainly haven’t exhausted this topic, but I hope I’ve made you more aware of the pronoun types beyond the personal ones (I, me, my, he, him, his) we usually think of. I have tried to cover many of the pronoun stumbling blocks.
Sometimes, though, it’s helpful to recognize when indefinite pronouns are pronouns and when they’re adjectives instead of pronouns.
—Some stores are open on Sunday. (some=adjective)
—Some are closed on Sunday. (pronoun)
—Only one table in the restaurant was unoccupied. (one=adjective)
—Of all the tables in the restaurant, only one was unoccupied. (pronoun)
—Some people actually believe the world is flat. (some=adjective)
—Some believe that flat-earth people are strange. (pronoun)
Lately I’ve been covering a lot of grammar topics, and I do hope you’ve found them interesting and perhaps useful. An occasional grammar review helps us as writers—and I always learn something every time I do one of these grammar posts—but I will switch things up for the next several posts.