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A Word, Please: Pronouns explained in plain English

November 06, 2011|By June Casagrande

Ever since the first time we got scolded for saying “Bobby and me were riding our bikes,” most of us have understood that pronouns are serious business. The swift correction we got made that clear. “It’s Bobby and I,” some adult told us.

Ironically, even the most educated English speakers can still mess up their pronouns. Often, it’s when we’re trying our best to get them right that we end up getting them wrong.

Take, for example, the common question “Whom shall I say is calling?” People who know that the pronoun “whom” is an object and “who” is its subject form figure that the real subject of the sentence is “I,” as in the clause “I say.” Therefore, they assume, “whom” must be the object.



The object of the clause “I say” is not a single pronoun like “whom.” It’s a whole cause. Look at the verb phrase “is calling.” This action requires a subject — a doer. And if you examine the sentence, you see there’s only one possible noun or pronoun that could be up to the task: “who.”

The clause “who is calling” is a little hard to identify in this sentence because it has another clause stuck in the middle “shall I say.” But when you start pairing up verbs with their subjects, you see that the action “is calling” requires a subject.

If you understand that “who” is a subject pronoun and “whom” is an object pronoun, it’s clear that “who” is the only correct choice here.

The trick is to know that the object of the verb “say” is not a single word but a whole clause — “who is calling” — and that clauses need subjects even when the whole clause is working as an object.

A more common pronoun error occurs when someone says, “This is just between you and I.” Linguists argue that this is an acceptable idiom. But what’s not acceptable is people choosing it because they think “between you and me” is wrong.

On the contrary, “between you and me” is the grammatical choice and the preferred form among grammar-savvy people.

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