GrammarPhile Blog

Pronoun Paranoia

Posted by Phil Jamieson   Aug 28, 2013 6:30:00 AM

paranoid manThe misuse of pronouns is the most common mistake people in all walks of life make. Fumbled pronouns are distractions, and they can kill your proposal, or your brochure, or your white paper, or even your sermon. You've heard us rail against public figures for swerving their pronouns. Well, it does drive us crazy, to the point where we want to send our daughters' grammar-challenged boyfriends off to the bookstore whenever they violate even the simplest rules of pronouns. (Hey, we can try, can't we?)

Herewith, some guidelines for all of us, hoping that we may avoid death by pronoun. And as always, if you just want to skip the explanations, you can focus on the examples given.

IS IT I or IS IT ME? Linking up
Guideline. Favor the SUBJECTIVE CASE form for pronouns that follow LINKING VERBS, but don't force the issue in conversation.

  • It was they who initiated the idea of holding the water ski tournament in Alaska. (They is in the subjective case because it follows the linking verb was.)
  • It is we who must take the responsibility for the slalom course freezing over in the middle of the competition. (We is in the subjective case because it follows the linking verb is.)
  • If anyone can vouch for Magnolia's expertise, it's me. (I is technically correct as the predicate nominative, but me has become the natural choice and is now considered acceptable in all but very formal situations or when a particular effect of correctness is desired.)

Use the possessive case form of a pronoun that precedes a GERUND (usually the -ingform of a verb).
  • My coming [not me coming] here today to discuss wetsuits for the skiers was not my idea. (Coming is a gerund that operates as the subject of the verb was. My, therefore, is in the possessive case.)
  • We appreciate your listening so patiently to our complaints about hypothermia. (Listening is a gerund operating in this sentence as the object of appreciate. Your, as the modifier, is in the possessive case.)
A closer look. A VERB ending in -ing isn't always a GERUND. It can sometimes be a PARTICIPLE that modifies a pronoun. In these situations, the pronoun is usually in the objective case. The distinction is one of emphasis: If the emphasis is on the action, use the possessive form. If the emphasis is on the pronoun more than the action, use the objective form.
  • I hope you didn't mind me interrupting your practice session. (Me would be the proper choice here, assuming the emphasis was on the pronoun and not on interrupting.)
  • I could hear them arguing in the tow boat because I was skiing only 45 feet behind it. (The emphasis is on them and not on arguing.)
As opposed to:
  • I could hear their arguing in the boat because I was skiing only 45 feet behind it. (The emphasis is on arguing.)


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Topics: pronouns

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