A Tin Ear for Pronouns

By Maeve Maddox

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Another of my certainties has been shattered.

Like anyone who has tried to explain why we do not say “Jack and me went to France” or “They invited my wife and I to the party,” I have always used the same approach.

Incorrect use of object pronoun form as subject

Person says: Jack and me went to France.

I say: The pronoun form needed here is “I,” not “me.” The way to get it right is to break up the compound and see how the words sound on their own. “Jack went to France.” “Me went to France?”

Person enlightened: Ah, of course! “Me went” does not sound right. Now I understand it should be “Jack and I went to France.”

Incorrect use of subject pronoun form as object

Person says: They invited my wife and I to the party.

I say: The pronoun you want in this sentence is “me,” not “I.” The pronoun is the object of the verb invited. You wouldn’t say, “They invited I to the party,” would you?

Person enlightened: Ah, of course not. “They invited I” does not sound right. It should be “They invited my wife and me to the party.”

Things fall apart
To paraphrase Blanche Dubois, I’ve always depended on the ear of strangers.

I’ve always imagined that separating the pronouns would do the trick. All that was necessary was to get rid of the other subject or object word. The person’s ear for spoken English would then make the error clear.

Evidently not.

A site called ClustrMaps offers a public records encyclopedia that provides addresses and phone numbers for persons and companies in the United States. Because it is a US directory, I’m assuming it is produced by US English-speakers. (Maybe not.)

Here is an extract (with made-up names and phone number) of what a search brought up.

The birth date was listed as 30-12-1960. Her age is 62. The most common alternative names for she are Ms Elizabeth M. Simpson, Ms Elizabeth M. Gonzales, and Ms Elizabeth M. Lee. 2515 Magnolia Road, Tuscaloosa AL 35406 is the residential address for Elizabeth. The phone number (205) 555-1788 belongs to she.

How would a teacher explain the use of she and her to the person who wrote that? It must have been a person. An AI program would have gotten the pronouns right.

A note on the Britannica dictionary site explains the tendency of people to use “you and I” where “you and me” is called for:

Some people think “you and I” is more formal or educated sounding and “you and me” is more conversational or casual, so it’s not unusual to hear someone say “He gave it to you and I” if they are trying to sound very formal, or “You and me should go to the store” if they are speaking very casually.

I can’t agree. Nothing could be more casual and conversational than the speech of that nice man in the Hartford Insurance commercials, and he says this of the Hartford “buck”:

He takes care of people like you and I.

Totally irrelevant aside
I’ve never understood the necessity to refer to the Hartford mascot as “the buck.” Surely the image was chosen as a play on the name Hartford, ergo, the animal is a hart.

hart: an adult male deer, especially a red deer over five years old.

Back to pronouns
I suspect that “you and I” as an object phrase has reached the tipping point. It will endure for a while in standard written English, but conversationally, it is no longer open to correction.

One can hope that there’s still time to stamp out “for she” and “to she.”

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3 Responses to “A Tin Ear for Pronouns”

  • venqax

    Tin seems to be the standard metal for ears. Just relying on what “sounds wrong” is a pretty good indicator for a native speaker if you’ve been moderately educated. But most people aren’t. I hear– and read– “I had went to the store earlier” and “I was tired because I had ran the whole way” All. The. Time. On college campuses. From degreed people. Simple tense stuff, like you might expect from a kindergartener– who was behind on language skills. I thought universal education was supposed to solve that problem (no, I didn’t really think that.)

  • Maeve

    venqax,
    This last Saturday, I looked up a program description on the local PBS (Public Broadcasting System) schedule. The program was a Father Brown episode. Here is a sentence from the description:

    Elsie, her husband Captain Peters and her sister Lola are rattled by [ex-con’s] return and tensions run high at an open event being ran that day.

    PBS.
    Who’s to doom when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?

  • Steve

    I agree: it’s a losing cause, like lie and lay, and my will to go down fighting is fading.

    I left my job last month, and I’d had planned to counsel my trusty deputy to use “you and me” in the objective, my version of the world’s worst parting gift. But as I headed for the door, I kept silent. Correct isn’t always right, is it?

    In the end, Maeve, there will be no one to back us up when they come for you and I. (No—there still a little fight left in me!)

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