Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid with Personal Pronouns

By Maeve Maddox

Among the oldest words in English are the personal pronouns I, you, he, she, it, we, and they.

Two of the personal pronouns, you and it, have only one form that is used as either subject or object:

See that goat? It bit me. (It is the subject of the verb bit.)
I hear a bee. Do you see it? (It is the object of the verb see.)
There’s a poisonous spider. Step on it! (It is the object of the preposition on)

You agree with Charlie on everything. (You is the subject of the verb agree)
That car just missed you. (You is the object of the verb missed.)
This information must remain between you and me. (You is the object of the preposition between.)

Five of the personal pronouns have two forms each: a subject form (I, he, she, we, they) and an object form (me, him, her, us, them).

The most common errors occur when subject and object forms are reversed.

Two additional errors that seem to be increasing are 1.) replacing a personal pronoun with a pronoun ending in -self and 2.) using a personal pronoun in a context that calls for a possessive adjective.

Mistake #1: Object form used in place of subject form

Incorrect: In the next several weeks, my colleagues and me will be discussing the appropriate way to do that. (Jay Inslee, Congressional Record)
Correct : In the next several weeks, my colleagues and I will be discussing the appropriate way to do that.

The subject forms I, he, she, we, and they are used as the subject of a verb. Here are models of correct usage:

We went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. (subject of the verb went)
The children and I had a lovely time. (subject of the verb had)
My colleagues and I will be discussing the plan. (subject of the verb will be discussing)

Mistake #2: Subject form used in place of object form following a preposition

Incorrect: She made each child feel special by taking pictures and spending quality one on one time with they and the dog. (A testimonial written by a person who has an M.A. degree)
Correct : She made children feel special by taking pictures and spending quality one on one time with them and the dog.

When the object of a preposition is a pronoun, the object form is required.

Reminder: Prepositions include such words as with, to, in, on, under, and between. Here are two examples of correct usage:

The butterfly alighted on her. (object of the preposition on)
She gave the horse to Jack and me. (object of the preposition to)

In the sample sentence, a social worker made children feel special by spending time “with them.”

Misake #3 Subject form used in place of object form following a transitive verb

Incorrect: Rodgers then followed she and her daughter out of the grocery store. (New York Daily News)
Correct : Rodgers then followed her and her daughter out of the grocery store.

When the direct object of a transitive verb is a pronoun, the object form is required. Here is an example of correct usage:

The supervisor commended him for his contribution. (direct object of the verb commended.)

The transitive verb followed requires the object form her.

Mistake #4 Subject form used in place of the corresponding possessive adjective

Incorrect: Susan announces she and her husband’s plans to divorce in front of Atticus’s family. (Downtown Abbey site)
Correct : Susan announces her and her husband’s plans to divorce in front of Atticus’s family.

Note: The personal pronouns have corresponding possessive forms. The possessive adjective forms are my, your, his, her, its, our, and their. They stand in front of the noun that is “possessed.” For example:

Jack is his friend. (possessive adjective that corresponds to personal pronouns he and him)
Sally is her friend. (possessive adjective that corresponds to personal pronouns she and her)

She is a subject form and cannot be used as a possessive adjective. Susan announces plans for the impending divorce. They are “her husband’s plans.” They are “her plans” as well.

Mistake #5 Reflexive pronoun used in place of personal pronoun

Incorrect: Both my wife and myself felt so much happier after watching this movie.
Correct : Both my wife and I felt so much happier after watching this movie.

Pronouns that end in -self or -selves are called “reflexive pronouns” or “emphatic pronouns.” Here are examples of their correct use:

The boy cut himself with the hedge clippers. (reflexive pronoun)
The mayor herself delivered my newspaper today. (emphatic pronoun)

There may be occasions when the emphatic form is wanted for a rhetorical flourish, but in ordinary speech, replacing a personal pronoun with one ending in -self or -selves is nonstandard usage to be avoided.

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6 Responses to “Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid with Personal Pronouns”

  • Lorraine Forrest-Turner

    Great article. Excellent advice. But shouldn’t the headline be ‘Top 5 Mistakes with Personal Pronouns to Avoid’ or ‘Top 5 Personal Pronoun Mistakes to Avoid’?

  • Br Kelly

    Mistake #’s 1–3 are so common that in a few years it will longer be considered a mistake. I hear the mistake all the time on radio and TV. My theory is that is is “me” phobia – the fear of using the object form, when the subject form should be used. So instead people use the subject form in every situation.

  • Irene Zeilinger

    Hi there,
    Thanks for the interesting and informative newsletter. I enjoy reading it and learn a lot about English and its history, and that for free! As I am not a native speaker, there is something puzzling me in COE (contemporary online English): what’s the business about stood/sat as a passive form? I often come across sentences like “she was stood in the doorway and waited for him”, or “when she entered the living room, he was sat on the sofa, reading a book.” Can this possibly be correct? To my German ears, this sounds a lot as if it was not the person doing their own sitting or standing, but someone put them there like a puppet. Please enlighten me!
    Kind regards,
    Irene Z.

  • Karel

    Irene – I’m not a native English speaker either so don’t take my word for it, but as far as I know if someone ‘was sat’ somewhere (although I don’t think I’ve ever heard that) it means someone else put that person there (guess you’d say ‘was placed’ somewhere). But I might be wrong.

    As for online English, it’s probably not written by someone natively English. My advise; don’t try to learn from it, you’ll lose your sense of what might be right and what isn’t wrong.

  • Aliye Geleta

    Thank you for you reminded us some facts about personal pronouns and updated our knowledge on the topic.
    We expect more on different issues like types of tenses, writing processes, etc. in the future.

    With regards,
    Aliye,

  • PreciseEdit

    Subject pronouns vs. object pronouns: an easy decision if you remember one simple rule-subject pronouns serve as subjects to verbs. That is all they do, and they do can it every time a verb needs a subject. If the pronoun is the subject of a verb, use a subject pronoun and nothing else. Thus, as with nearly every question about English grammar, examine the verbs. English is, after all, a language based on verbs.

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