Confusion of Subjective and Objective Pronouns

By Mark Nichol

How do you decide which form of a pronoun to use, as in the choices of the wording in “John is as fast as him” and “John is as fast as he”? Knowing the varieties of pronouns will help you choose the correct form.

A subject pronoun is one used as the subject of a sentence, as in “He is right” or “I am amazed.” (Subject pronouns include I, you, he, she, it, we, and they.) Subject pronouns may also rename the subject, following a copular verb (one that is a form of “to be”): “It is I who left the chair there.”

A subject pronoun should also be used for such sentences as “It might have been she,” though an object pronoun is used in its place almost invariably in casual speech and often in writing.

Object pronouns (me, you, him, her, it, us, and them), by contrast, are used to identify the object of a sentence, as in “Mary gave it to her” and “The tourists went to see them.” (Notice that you and it can serve as both subject and object pronouns.) Object nouns are used with all the three types of objects: “The Smiths invited us” (direct object), “The Smiths gave us our dish back” (indirect object), and “The Smiths gave a party for us” (object of a preposition).

Should a sentence read, “I am older than her” or “I am older than she”? In a statement of comparison that uses as or than and does not end with a copular verb, temporarily add one to test the correct type of pronoun: “I am older than her is” does not sound right, but “I am older than she is” does, so the correct word in this sentence is she. (Therefore, the correct sentence in the pair of examples in the first paragraph of this post — in formal writing, at least — is “John is as fast as he.”)

Note, however, that what appears to be a sentence with an incorrect form of a pronoun can be correct when it means something else. For example, “She fell asleep before him” could mean that the woman fell asleep in front of someone, not earlier than someone, in which case the statement is correct.

What if the sentence refers to more than one person? Several factors come into play. The pronoun in “Joe and I were invited to the party” is correct because I is part of the subject (“Joe and I”). But “John went to the party with Joe and I” is not, because “Joe and I” is now the object, and the correct personal pronoun for an object is me: “John went to the party with Joe and me.” (Test for the correct form of the pronoun by removing the other person from the object: “John went to the party with me,” not “John went to the party with I,” is correct, so “John went to the party with Joe and me” is correct.)

But an exception is made when the reference to Joe and the writer is preceded by a copular, or linking, verb (a form of “to be”), as in “The last people at the party were Joe and I.” In this sentence, “Joe and I” are predicate nominatives, meaning that they rename or describe the subject: “Joe and I” equals “the last people at the party.”

A pronoun in a predicate nominative takes the subjective, not objective, case: “The last people at the party were Joe and I” is correct. It may seem wrong, but that’s because the rule is ignored in most spoken English and in much written English as well, so we’re accustomed to hearing and reading the error. It should be observed, however — at least in formal English. (Some comments on this post refer to a previous version of this discussion.)

Possessive pronouns (mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, and theirs) signal possession or relationship and, unlike nouns in possessive form, never include apostrophes. They take the same form whether in the subjective position or the objective position: “That is hers. Yours is here.”

Reflexive pronouns (myself, himself, herself, itself, themselves, ourselves, yourself, and yourselves) refer to something already mentioned (“The machine appeared to start by itself”) or implied (Suit yourselves”). “The directions applied only to myself” is wrong because the person indicated by myself is not explicitly or implicitly referred to. (The correct wording is “The directions applied only to me.”) However, “I followed the directions myself” is correct because myself refers to the subject I.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


26 Responses to “Confusion of Subjective and Objective Pronouns”

  • DH

    This all made sense to me until I read the bit about John and me at the party.

    At the beginning of this post it says subjective pronouns are used when you are referring to the subject of the sentence. Yet you say the reason “the last people at the party were Joe and me” is correct is that Joe and me is the *subject* of the sentence?

    It’s clear that Joe and me is the correct construction but my understanding is that it’s correct because they are the objects, not the subjects. For the same reason “Joe and I were the first people to arrive at the party” would be correct because in this construction they are the subjects.

    Can anyone explain where I’m going wrong here? Or is there an error in the article?

  • Eddy Tor

    ‘What if the sentence refers to more than one person? “Joe and I were invited to the party” is correct, because I is part of the subject (“Joe and I”). But “The last people at the party were Joe and I” is wrong because here, despite its location at the end of the sentence, “Joe and I” is the subject.’

    This is confusing.

    You stated in both cases that “Joe and I” is the subject. Shouldn’t the subject always take subject pronouns?

    Here’s my reasoning.

    “Who was the last person at the party?”
    “He was the last person at the party.” <–obviously correct
    "He [was]." <– correct
    "Him [was]." <– incorrect
    Therefore: "The last person at the party was he." <–correct, but sounds awkward because most people don't say this

    "Who was the last person at the party?"
    "I was the last person at the party." <–obviously correct
    "I [was]." <–correct
    "Me [was]." <–incorrect
    Therefore: "The last person at the party was I." <–correct, but sounds awkward

    "Who were the last people at the party?"
    "Joe and I were the last people at the party."
    "Joe and I [were]." <–correct
    "Joe and me [were]." <–incorrect
    Therefore: "The last people at the party were Joe and I." <–correct

    In the

  • Sophia

    Microsoft Word’s checking system had it right!
    The statement:
    ““The last people at the party were Joe and I” is wrong because here, despite its location at the end of the sentence, “Joe and I” is the subject.”
    is half wrong and half correct, that is, wrong overall!
    In fact, it is true that:
    “despite its location at the end of the sentence, “Joe and I” is the subject”
    and, as the subject, it should be “I” and not “me”.

  • pg

    You most certainly would NOT write The last person at the party was me, just as you wouldn’t write Me was the last person at the party. “Me” can never be a subject. I was the last person, the last person was I. You and I were the last persons, the last persons were you and I.

  • Elysia Brenner

    Love your posts, and I just about always agree with you completely, in addition to learning ever-deeper intricacies of grammar from you. I do, for the first time, have a question about today’s post, though. It seems to me that these two passages contradict each other:

    1)Subject pronouns may also rename the subject, following a copular verb (one that is a form of “to be”): “It is I who left the chair there.” A subject pronoun should also be used for such sentences as “It might have been she,” though an object pronoun is used in its place almost invariably in casual speech and often in writing. … “I am older than her is” does not sound right, but “I am older than she is” does, so the correct word in this sentence is she. (Therefore, the correct sentence in the pair of examples in the first paragraph of this post — in formal writing, at least — is “John is as fast as he.”)

    -and-

    2) What if the sentence refers to more than one person? “Joe and I were invited to the party” is correct, because I is part of the subject (“Joe and I”). But “The last people at the party were Joe and I” is wrong because here, despite its location at the end of the sentence, “Joe and I” is the subject. Just as you’d write, “The last person at the party was me,” you’d refer to the last two partygoers by writing, “The last people at the party were Joe and me.” (When I checked this post for spelling and grammar, Microsoft Word’s checking system recommended that I replace me in “The last person at the party was me” with I. Sigh.)

    My question is: if, as I understood from the first passage, the verb “to be” in its various forms essentially acts as an equal sign, locking any pronouns it attaches itself to to their subjective form, and in the second passage you say “John and I” is the subject…why do you not use the subject version of the preposition like you did in the singular subject from the first passage?

    Thank you for your daily bits of word wisdom. 🙂

  • Jessica Flory

    Wow! Really great stuff! I can’t believe how often I mess this up. Thanks for the tips!

  • John Couch

    I have a question about the sentence, “The last person at the party was me.” I would write that sentence the same way that you did; however, now I’m confused in light of a rule you mentioned earlier in the post. Isn’t this an example of a pronoun that is renaming the subject, and that is following a copular verb?

  • Alice Kemp

    Hi guys,

    I do enjoy testing my own knowledge against your writing tips, but am somewhat confused by one of your statements in this one:

    What if the sentence refers to more than one person? “Joe and I were invited to the party” is correct, because I is part of the subject (“Joe and I”). But “The last people at the party were Joe and I” is wrong because here, despite its location at the end of the sentence, “Joe and I” is the subject. Just as you’d write, “The last person at the party was me,” you’d refer to the last two partygoers by writing, “The last people at the party were Joe and me.”

    In the above paragraph, you said, “…despite its location at the end of the sentence, ‘Joe and I’ is the subject.” So if “Joe and I” are indeed the subject, then “Joe and I’ should be the correct usage in “The last people at the party were Joe and I.” Right?

  • Irene Luvaul

    Please explain why you believe “The last people at the party were Joe and me” is correct. You state that “despite its location at the end of the sentence, ‘Joe and I’ is the subject. If that is the subject, wouldn’t it be correct to write “Joe and I”?

  • Maximilian Andrews

    I agree with most of the post, but I don’t understand why “The last people at the party were Joe and I.” is wrong. “Joe and I” is the subject; in fact, one can write “Joe and I were the last people at the party.”, where “Joe and me” would definitely be wrong.

  • Jean Kearsley

    I’m having trouble following your logic in the seventh paragraph of this post. You say, “But ‘The last people at the party were Joe and I” is wrong because here, despite its location at the end of the sentence, “Joe and I” is the subject.’ Since you’ve already defined “I” as one of the “subject pronouns,” your conclusion is counter-intuitive as best, and just plain illogical at worst.

    I’ve always been taught that when some version of the verb “to be” establishes an identity between the subject of a sentence and another word on the far side of the verb, be it pronoun or not, then both terms remain in the nominative case. Your sentence above seems to confirm this, though you draw the opposite conclusion (to make the sentence logical, substitute “correct” for “wrong.”

    I think you should have listened to SpellCheck.

  • Nser

    The sentence – “The last person at the party was me” is wrong.

    Just as you can say “I was the last person at the party”, you can equally say “The last person at the party was I; they mean the same thing. I stand to be corrected.

  • Anne

    The previous poster is right — paragraph 7 makes no sense regardless of which position one takes; it is inconsistent with paragraph 2.

  • Bill

    Using WordPerfect, I checked the following sentences:
    “The last persons at the party were Joe and me.”
    “The last person at the party was me.”
    The Grammatik tool said that “I” was the correct word in both sentences.

  • Michael

    I agree with both posters above. If Joe and I are the subject, then subjective pronouns should be used.

    “The last person at the party was me” is the colloquial usage and thus sounds less formal and more acceptable in speech than “The last person at the party was I.” The same holds for the plural version.

  • kristen

    Thank you for this article. It is a really useful review of the topic.
    I would really appreciate clarification of one point. If “Joe and me” is the subject of the sentence ( regardless of its placement), why would one use the object pronoun “me” ?

  • Lise

    “Jean, Anne and I are confused about paragraph 7.” But what about this: “Jean, Anne, and now me. Please clarify paragraph 7” Should “me” be “I”?

  • Edward (Jim) Schultz

    In agreeing with John Kearsley, I find what he says to be true and to support this position, I rearrange the sentence to read, “Me and Joe were the last persons to leave the party.” I now let Joe go home without me and, according to your logic, the sentence should read “Me was the last person to leave the party.”
    “Me left the party last.”

  • Heather Rothman

    I must agree with Jean and Anne. I had the same issue with this paragraph and cannot figure out how you arrived at your conclusion. Why is the nominative form not used when the pronoun is following “were,” a form of the verb to be?

  • Warsaw Will

    Re: ‘the last people at the party were Joe and me’ – firstly this sounds rather more natural to me than ‘Joe and I’, but I’d like to try and explain why people say that ‘Joe and I’ correct.

    The subject is ‘the last people at the party’, so Joe and I aren’t the subject, but they do refer to the subject. They’re not the object either, as the verb ‘to be’ doesn’t take an object, but something variously known as a subject complement, a predicative complement or a nominal complement, which in formal grammar is in the subjective form (or case). That’s why pedants insist that we say “It is I”, when most of us say “It’s me”.

    The problem is that on this on, formal grammar is completely out of step with normal usage, and I can’t agree that using such an unnatural expression as “It might have been she” is “better” just because formal grammar says so. It’s a case of the tail wagging the dog.

  • Mark Nichol

    I’m sorry for confusing you all with the paragraph beginning “What if the sentence refers to more than one person?” The readers who challenged the paragraph’s assertions are correct; the problem is that in selecting a sample sentence to make my point, I used a sentence construction that is an exception to the rule. I’ll have the post revised, and I will return to the topic in more detail in an upcoming post.

  • AnWulf

    Whoa nelly!

    You should check the MWDEU. Than can work as a conjunction OR a preposition, meaning that than I/he/she/they and than me/him/her/them are both right in most cases! The latter is found from the 16th century until today and by good writers in both formal and informal writs. The belief that me/him/her/them are wrong is one of those holdovers from Latin-based grammars of English.

  • Dale A. Wood

    It is amazing that nobody, including the author, said anything about the concept of an “ellipsis”.

    The sentence, “She was even taller than I” really says “She was even taller than I am,” whether you can SEE the “am” or not. The verb IS there, whether it is invisible or not. There is no guesswork here.

    “Mark was drunker that I that night, so we both walked home” states “Mark was drunker that I was that night…”

    Like many of the examples in the article, “Four is two plus two” and “Two plus two is four” mean exactly the same thing, and everything is in the nominative case.
    Just picture the verbs {is, are, was, were, has been, had been, and equals} as pivot points in a lever. In other words, they are fulcrums. Everything MUST balance. MUST, MUST balance.

    Sincerely yours, Dale

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Warsaw Will” needs to pay attention to what I just wrote above.
    Apparently, he does not understand that 4 = 2 + 2 and 2 + 2 = 4 say exactly the same thing, and that the same occurance is in language:

    I watched a film yesterday in which
    Moe, Larry, and Shemp were the The Three Stooges; or
    The Three Stooges were Moe, Larry, and Shemp.

    What is the subject of the sentence? Both “Moe, Larry, and Shemp” and “The Three Stooges”, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!
    It doesn’t make any difference!
    Let the tail wag the damned dog!

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Once again, we have problems with someone inserting terms from British English here.

    Look at this example: “The butler was the murderer.”
    In North America, which contains a lot more native speakers of English than Europe does, the word “murderer” is called a “predicate nominative”. That is the way that it is.

    The subjects of sentences and clauses are in the nominative case, and so are predicate nominatives. Please do not confuse the situation by using terminology from elsewhere.

    When in describing nouns and pronouns from German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Latin, etc., we use the terms nominative, objective, dative, genitive, and a few others in North American English. I learned this not only from my teachers and textbooks, but from my revered Mother – a better English teacher than you have ever seen.

    D.A.W.

  • Chris

    Can someone explain the use of “he” and “him” in the following sentences:
    “Jane thought he was smart.”
    “Jane thought him (a) smart (boy).”

Leave a comment: