A Word, Please: Pronouns explained in plain English

Ever since the first time we got scolded for saying “Bobby and me were riding our bikes,” most of us have understood that pronouns are serious business. The swift correction we got made that clear. “It’s Bobby and I,” some adult told us.

Ironically, even the most educated English speakers can still mess up their pronouns. Often, it’s when we’re trying our best to get them right that we end up getting them wrong.

Take, for example, the common question “Whom shall I say is calling?” People who know that the pronoun “whom” is an object and “who” is its subject form figure that the real subject of the sentence is “I,” as in the clause “I say.” Therefore, they assume, “whom” must be the object.


The object of the clause “I say” is not a single pronoun like “whom.” It’s a whole cause. Look at the verb phrase “is calling.” This action requires a subject — a doer. And if you examine the sentence, you see there’s only one possible noun or pronoun that could be up to the task: “who.”

The clause “who is calling” is a little hard to identify in this sentence because it has another clause stuck in the middle “shall I say.” But when you start pairing up verbs with their subjects, you see that the action “is calling” requires a subject.

If you understand that “who” is a subject pronoun and “whom” is an object pronoun, it’s clear that “who” is the only correct choice here.

The trick is to know that the object of the verb “say” is not a single word but a whole clause — “who is calling” — and that clauses need subjects even when the whole clause is working as an object.

A more common pronoun error occurs when someone says, “This is just between you and I.” Linguists argue that this is an acceptable idiom. But what’s not acceptable is people choosing it because they think “between you and me” is wrong.

On the contrary, “between you and me” is the grammatical choice and the preferred form among grammar-savvy people.

“Between” is a preposition, and prepositions take objects, which are always considered to be in the objective case. For example, the “me” is an object and its corresponding subject is “I.” “Him” is an object, and its corresponding subject form is “he.” “Us” is an object, and it’s paired with the subject “we.” And so on.

So if you start tinkering by plugging in different subject and object pronouns, you quickly see that “between us” is a lot better than “between we,” and that’s your clue that even if the object of the preposition is plural “you and me” it should be in the object form.

One of the most baffling pronoun situations occur when we use a sentence like “It is I who am your boss.” Stop to analyze this and it becomes almost impossible to understand why it’s not “It is I who is your boss.” After all, “who is” is right in most other contexts and “who am” seems downright weird.

But according to “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” the word “who” agrees with whatever pronoun it refers to. So in “It is I who am,” the “who” refers to “I,” which goes with “am.” This becomes a little more obvious in other situations.

For example, you’d probably always choose “It is we who are here” over “It is we who is here.” You’d be right, and you’d be years ahead of the kid who used to get in trouble for using “Bobby and me” as a subject.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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