Object Pronouns vs. Subject Pronouns

By Mark Nichol

Using pronouns seems simple enough, but they cause confusion because it’s easy to mix up nominative, or subject, pronouns and object pronouns.

Here’s a review of the difference between the two categories of pronoun: A nominative pronoun is one that takes the place of a noun phrase used as a sentence’s subject. Instead of writing, “The man patiently stood in line,” one could write, “He stood patiently in line.”

An object pronoun, however, replaces a noun phrase employed as an object: If you wished to use a pronoun to refer to a woman who precedes the man in line, you wouldn’t use the equivalent of the pronoun that appears in the second example above (“The man patiently stood in line behind she”); you’d use a different form (“The man patiently stood in line behind her”).

Pronouns that rename the subject and follow a verb should also be in subject form: “It is I who have been wronged.”

In comparative sentences — those in which as or than is used to compare two things — should you write, “I am just as capable as her” or “I am just as capable as she”? To test the appropriate pronoun form, append a verb to the sentence, and the correct version becomes clear: “I am just as capable as she is.” (One often hears people saying things like “I am just as capable as her,” but one often hears things said that are not grammatically rigorous.)

Sometimes, the correct choice depends on the meaning of the sentence: Is “She’s more likely to ask him than I” correct, or should you write, “She’s more likely to ask him than me”? If the extended sentence is “She’s more likely to ask him than I am,” in which the comparison is between the subject and the writer, I is correct. However, if the intent is to convey that the man referred to as him is more likely to be asked something by the subject than the writer is, the correct pronoun form is me, but that distinction should be clarified with a revision like “She’s more likely to ask him than ask me.”

Another source of confusion is reflexive pronouns — those that reflect back on the subject. Reflexive pronouns include all the compound words ending in -self (for example, myself) or -selves (for example, themselves). Reflexive pronouns should be used only to refer to another word in the sentence. For example, in “I gave myself a mental pat on the back for a job well done,” myself refers to the subject I. However, in “The letter was intended for myself,” myself has no referent (the subject is “the letter”), so the sentence should read, “The letter was intended for me.”

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16 Responses to “Object Pronouns vs. Subject Pronouns”

  • Cliff Douglas

    Shouldn’t the sentnece in the third paragraph be, “It is I who have been wronged”.

  • Silvia G. Martínez

    Thank you a lot Mark, really. From the grammar point of view your notes are so clear and enlightening that I think this is the best explanation I get about the subject.

  • Preciseedit

    @ cliff
    No. The verb “has” refers to “who,” not to “I.” “Who” is a singular subject pronoun here, so the verb needs an “S.” The correct form is “who has.”

    You could say “I have been wronged,” with “have” referring to “I,” or “It is I who has been wronged.”

    On the other hand, if you use “we” instead of “I,” you would say “It is we who have been wronged,” which now uses “who” as a plural subject pronoun.

  • Preciseedit

    Here is a brief way to say all this information about subject and object pronouns.

    If the pronoun is the subject of a verb, stated or implied, use a subject pronoun. Your choices are…
    I, you, he, she it, who, we, they.

    If the pronoun is the receiver of an action or is the object of a pronoun, stated or implied, use an object pronoun. You choices are…
    Me, you, him, her, it, whom, us, them.

  • Preciseedit

    Gah.
    …or is the object of a preposition…

  • Cliff

    @Preciseedit

    Thanks for the clear explaination.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “It’s easy to mix up nominative, or subject, pronouns and object pronouns.”

    I say that this is true only under situations of much carelessness.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Quoting from Mr. Nichol:
    “A nominative pronoun is one that takes the place of a noun phrase used as a sentence’s subject.”

    This is not entirely true, and there is a serious omission here.
    In the case of predicate nominatives, the nominative case is obviously used, and predicate nominatives were not even mentioned.
    Here is an example: He is the Ghost of Christmas Past.
    In cases like this one, the antecedent of “He” is “Ghost of Christmas Past”. That noun phrase is a predicate nominative.

    Actually, the quoted sentence was written in a confusing way. By the rules of grammar, “used as a sentence’s subject” must refer to “noun phrase”. However, I am led to suspect that Mr. Nichol intended for “used as a sentence’s subject” to refer to “nominative pronoun”.

    A nominative pronoun used as a sentence’s subject generally has its antecedent in the previous sentence. For example:
    A country in North America is the United States. It is a country that consists of 50 states, just one of which – Hawaii – is outside of North America. (The Hawaiian Islands do not have any geological connection with North America.)
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Cases in which an actual pronoun is used as the predicate nominative:
    “Is that odd creature a he or a she?”

    Q: Who is in here in the shadows?
    A. It is I of whom you speak.
    The pronoun “I” is clearly a predicate nominative, and the pronoun “it” is used idiomatically in English, instead of the literally correct “He is I of whom you speak,” or “She is I of whom you speak.”
    Even in ungrammatical English, “It’s me!” has “me” as the predicate nominative.

    “Who are you?” has “you” as the predicate nominative.
    Likewise for “Who is he?”, “Who is she?”, “Who are we?”, and “Who are they?” “Who are we? Have we mutated into a people who cannot obey the law and pay our bills?”

  • Dale A. Wood

    From Preciseedit”
    “If the pronoun is the subject of a verb, stated or implied, use a subject pronoun. Your choices are…
    I, you, he, she it, who, we, they.”

    Several have been omitted from the list, including most of the subjective-case pronouns that are used in asking questions. “Who” was included, but the others are “what” and “which”. The pronouns {who, what, which} can be used as subjects or predicate nominatives.

    People really need to listen to the famous dialog “Who’s on first?” In this one, Lou Costello asked a long question: “…blah-blah…What’s on second, and the man on first base is Who?” Bud Abbot replied, “That’s the first thing you said today that makes sense!”

    For a simpler example: Which is the car with the newer tires?
    “Which” is an interrogatory pronoun in the nominative case. This is also a simple example in that “which” is also the objective case.
    In this interesting one, the possessive case is “whose”, but that one is rarely used.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Quoting:
    If the pronoun is the receiver of an action or is the object of a pronoun, stated or implied, use an object pronoun. You choices are…
    Me, you, him, her, it, whom, us, them.

    Unfortunately, you have omitted the interrogatory and relative pronouns “what” and “which”:

    “When the police man said ‘Stay in the car,’ you said what!?”
    “To which party do you belong?”
    Naturally “whom” is both an interrogatory and a relative pronoun.
    “To whom do you wish to speak?”
    in place of the very informal, “Who do you wanna yak with?”

  • Peter Buxton

    A great example of misusing subject/object pronouns is Paul McCartney’s narcissistic song lyric: “nobody I know could love you more than me.”

  • Faye West

    Is there a separate rule about reflexive pronouns for restaurant workers? I’m sure there must be a national rule book that instructs them all to say, “And for yourself?” when taking an order.

  • Charlie Parks

    Quoting from Cliff Douglas:

    ‘Shouldn’t the sentence in the third paragraph be, “It is I who have been wronged”.’

    Pace preciseedit, the relative pronoun “who” governs the verb “have” here, not the expletive “it.” The “who,” in turn, refers not to “it” but to “I.” Thus, the verb should have the first-person-singular conjugation “have.”

    Consider a sentence like “I am not the one who has been wronged.” As in the first sentence, the relative pronoun determines the conjugation of the verb “have.” Since “who” refers to “the one” and not to “I,” it has the third-person-singular conjugation “has.”

  • Mark Nichol

    The erroneous verb form in “It is I who has been wronged” has been righted.

  • Preciseedit

    Can’t make a third person pronoun into a first person pronoun – who has. For example, you would say “I am the one who HAS the right answer.”

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