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A Word, Please: When it comes to pronouns, try to sound courteous and natural

I and several readers were communicating recently about the practice of putting “I,” “me” or “my” first in a compound-noun phrase. In fact, two back-to-back emails posed the same question: Isn’t it wrong to put oneself first in a compound subject?

For example, Carol in Glendale had come across a passage to the effect of “I and my 13 fellow campers.” She doesn’t like that. Can you blame her?

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Rod in Burbank found his fodder in this column. When writing about possessives recently, I had suggested the form “Both my and my wife’s families are based here in South Florida.”

Rod was fine with the grammar but still thought the passage needed improvement.

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“My objection is a nongrammatical point. I was always taught that ‘I’ came second. ‘My wife and I went to South Florida,’” Rod wrote. Thus, by extension, the same rule that applies to “I” should also apply to “my,” Rod noted.

That would would give us “Both my wife’s and my families are based here in South Florida.”

I agree with Carol and Rod. Both these passages would be better with the first-person pronoun in the second-place position.

As Rod pointed out, it has nothing to do with grammar. There are no grammar rules about how to order nouns or pronouns in a compound subject. Instead, it’s about etiquette and speaking or writing in natural-sounding language.

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“It’s true that using the personal pronoun last when other pronouns are used in the same clause is considered polite,” Merriam-Webster editor Emily Brewster advises in a blog post.

“However, using a different order does not necessarily mean that one is being impolite. In fact, outside of formal contexts, using the first person pronoun before another pronoun is not a mistake and will not cause anyone to take offense,” she added.

Often, putting the first-person pronoun first sounds strikingly unnatural: “I and Joe are talking.” Grammatically, that’s no less appropriate than “my and my wife’s families,” but if sounding natural is a goal — and it should be — compound subjects with “I” should put the “I” last.

Interestingly, putting the first-person pronoun first sounds more natural if you use the ungrammatical object form. Compare “Me and Bobby are going to the park” with “I and Bobby are going to the park.” The latter is grammatical, the former is not, yet the former sounds better.

That counts. If one structure sounds bad and another sounds normal, that alone is at least partial justification for using it. That’s because, in language, popularity is a form of legitimacy: We use the term “idiomatic” to describe this phenomenon.

“In informal conversation, there is nothing impolite about the speaker using ‘Me and Gorgie’ as the subject of a sentence; it merely serves to emphasize her own role in the making up that has happened,” Brewster said.

“However, because it is informal, it might show that the speaker does not use language in a formal or careful way; therefore, this word order might say something about the background or educational level of the speaker,” she added.

In other words, if you’re writing for business or academia or if you just care about sounding educated, avoid using “me” as a subject. But remember it’s the right form for an object: “Do you want to join Georgie and me at the park?” Here, “me” is correct because it’s the object of “join”: join me, not join I.

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Likewise, if you care about sounding courteous, refer to yourself last in any compound subject.

But if you’re just speaking casually to a friendly audience, just choose whichever pronoun and pronoun order seem most natural.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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