Answers to Questions About Personal Pronouns

By Mark Nichol

Here are three queries from readers about proper use of personal pronouns, followed by my responses.

1. Why does the following sentence use my instead of me?: “My mother hates to spend money, that’s one thing; so if she can make a joke out of my not wanting to, then I’m in the clear because she can save money.”

The phrase “not wanting to” describes a lack of a desire — so wanting describes a thing, making the word a gerund — a verb form that functions as a noun — not a verb. Because the sentence assigns “not wanting to” to a person, it requires a possessive personal pronoun (my).

Wanting, of course, can also be a verb, but the point of this sentence is the attitude, not the person: “My not wanting to” emphasizes the attitude, while “me not wanting to” focuses on the person.

A similar example is the difference between “Can you imagine my wanting to wear that?” versus “Can you imagine me wanting to wear that?” where it is the person’s proposed inclination, not the person herself, that is the point of the sentence.

2. Is there a quick-and-dirty method for deciding which pronoun applies in a sentence like “We need to discuss you/your going to the prom”?

Good question. I haven’t read of any test to determine which form of the pronoun is proper, but here’s one I just thought of (though I assume I’m not the first to do so): You must be able to provide, in a syntactically and grammatically correct form, more detail about what is being discussed — replace wanting, in this case, with a phrase. For example:

We need to discuss you request to go to the prom. (incorrect)
We need to discuss your request to go to the prom. (correct)

Therefore, your is the appropriate pronoun. (And that is true for the same reason that my, not me, is correct in the previous example.)

3. Which of the following versions of this awkward statement is correct?:

“Glance at mine and Michael’s calendar to see if we have time for lunch.”
“Glance at Michael’s and my calendar to see if we have time for lunch.”
“Glance at our calendars to see if we have time for lunch.”
“Michael and I have calendars. Glance at our calendars to see if we have time for lunch.”
“Michael and I have calendars; glance at them to see if we have time for lunch.”

The first choice is erroneous because removing “and Michael’s” results in “Glance at mine calendar to see if we have time for lunch.” Also, it’s considered good form to name another person before using a personal pronoun.

Therefore, the best choice is the revision “Glance at Michael’s and my calendar to see if we have time for lunch” if you and Michael share a calendar. If you each have your own calendar, write or say, “Glance at Michael’s and my calendars to see if we have time for lunch” — but only if “Glance at our calendar(s) to see if we have time for lunch” is unsatisfactory because your identities must be specified. The last two versions suggest overcorrection of Pythonesque proportions.

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6 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Personal Pronouns”

  • Mohini Singh

    Hello,

    Firstly, I love your writing tips. They are a great source of knowledge and help.

    In the article above, I believe the rule for the first question can easily apply to the second. In the sentence the speaker is implying that they need to discuss not the person but the person’s actions. And this makes the pronoun a possessive one. So you’d choose your over you. This is how I choose my pronouns in such sentences.

    Thank you,
    Mohini

  • Leigh

    Not to be niggling, but at the end of the first paragraph of this post, you refer to “a possessive PLURAL pronoun (my).” I trust this is a typo.

  • Jan Arzooman

    Wow. Once again I am impressed with how clearly you explain that. It is a topic that many of us struggle with. But could you provide a little further explanation on your “test”?

    I would think “going to the prom” is obviously a gerund and there can’t be any other option, simply because if “going” were the verb in the sentence, it would need something else — “we need to discuss WHETHER you ARE going to the prom,” etc.

    Is there ever a case where it’s ambiguous whether something is a noun phrase or a verb? I mean, “me not wanting to” makes no sense. I know people talk like that and the rules aren’t so strict anymore in writing, but I’d prefer to be right whenever possible. Are there cases where using “me” or “you” with a gerund is OK?

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Jan Arzooman:
    Using “me” or “you” to modify a gerund is always incorrect because the gerund is a noun. These need modifiers that are adjectives.

    On the other hand, gerunds can take objects that are nouns or pronouns. Hence, these are correct uses of “me” and “you”:
    1. “Beating you at chess, at last, was one of the joys of my life”.
    2. “Giving me a kick in the seat of the pants then was just what I needed.”
    In case 1), the word “you” is a direct object.
    In case 2), the word “me” is an indirect object.

    German is the only language in which the first letter of a gerund is capitalized, and in German, this indicates that the word is a noun – unless it happens to be the first word in a sentence. (In that case, we would have to rely on the context.) Here is a good example:
    “Das Fliegen freut mich sehr gut.” = “Flying really makes me happy.”
    “Fliegen” is a gerund, and in German, all gerunds are neuter nouns.

    To demonstrate the use of an infinitive, remember that all infinitives are feminine nouns: “Die Fliegen freut mich sehr gut.” = “To fly makes me very happy.”
    “Die Fahren auf die Autobahn freut mich sehr gut.” = “To drive on the Autobahn makes me happy.”
    “Das Fahren auf die Autobahn freut mich sehr gut.” = “Driving on the Autobahn makes me happy.”
    “Fun, fun, fun auf die Autobahn!” This is a German sentence in which the word “fun” has been borrowed from English.

    By their being capitalized guarantees that “Fliegen” and “Fahren” are nouns, and we don’t have this in English, Swedish, French, Spanish, etc. – nor do we really need it.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Leigh: You are right.
    “possessive plural pronoun” should have actually been “possessive personal pronoun”.
    That was where the typographical error appeared.
    D.A.W.

  • Jan Arzooman

    Dale — interesting, that gerunds are capitalized and female in German.

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