Grammar Shape-shifting Troublemakers |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Shape-shifting Troublemakers

No nouns in our language behave like pronouns. The most common subject pronouns (I, he, she, we, they, who, whoever) all become different words (me, him, her, us, them, whom, whomever) when they are objects.

Colloquial English has always thumbed its nose at proper English. A seemingly innocent everyday sentence like It’s me is Exhibit A.

As we discussed in I Subject, Your Honor, in formal English, It’s me is wrong, and It’s I is correct. In such sentences, pronouns linked by any form of the verb to be are equivalent to subjects—but me is an object pronoun. If It’s me were correct, then we’d also have to say, “Me is it.”

Down through the years, correct pronoun usage has been of little concern to the masses, who would rather drink from Lake Erie than say, “The culprit was they, but we thought it might be he.”

Having dealt two weeks ago with the havoc that the verb to be wreaks in sentences with pronouns, let’s look now at another disruption to correct English: compound subjects and compound objects that contain pronouns.

A compound subject is two or more nouns or pronouns joined most commonly by and or or. Joe and I is a compound subject. It is correct in Joe and I went fishing.

Joe and her is a compound object. It is correct in The group chose Joe and her.

Here is an easy, foolproof way to get such sentences right: Remove the noun and say the sentence with just the pronoun. Without the nouns, the two sentences are a breeze: I went fishing and The group chose her. Using this method exposes incorrect sentences such as It was up to Joe and I and Either me or Joe will help, because we’d never say, “It was up to I” or “Me will help.”

One more thing: It is always wrong to mix subject and object pronouns, such as “her and I.” In an oft-heard sentence like “Her and I arrived,” it’s clear that I arrived is correct, but no one would say “her arrived,” so the sentence requires she, the subject pronoun: She and I arrived.

More on finding the correct pronoun next time …


Pop Quiz

Correct any wayward compound subjects or objects.

1. Me and him went to the game.

2. The dog was always with Vinnie and I.

3. May my wife and me join you for dinner?

4. Either you or him must be willing to help.

5. Alice and me were who it was meant for.



Pop Quiz Answers

1. He and I went to the game.

2. The dog was always with Vinnie and me.

3. May my wife and I join you for dinner?

4. Either you or he must be willing to help.

5. Alice and I were whom it was meant for. (whom is the object of the preposition for)

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

10 responses to “Shape-shifting Troublemakers”

  1. Kathryn G. says:

    Alice and I were whom it was meant for. (whom is the object of the preposition for)

    WHAT????! You cannot end a sentence with a preposition! Isn’t that right?

    It was meant for Alice and me.

    • says:

      We hope you will be happy to learn that is not right. Here is Rule 1 of Prepositions from our website:
      Rule 1 – You may end a sentence with a preposition. Just do not use extra prepositions when the meaning is clear without them.

      Further, here is what The Chicago Manual of Style has to say:

      5.176 Ending a sentence with a preposition

      The traditional caveat of yesteryear against ending sentences with prepositions is, for most writers, an unnecessary and pedantic restriction. As Winston Churchill famously said, “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” A sentence that ends in a preposition may sound more natural than a sentence carefully constructed to avoid a final preposition. Compare, for example, this is the case I told you about with this is the case about which I told you. The “rule” prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition. Today many grammarians use the dismissive term pied-piping for this phenomenon.

      Finally, your sentence, “It was meant for Alice and me,” is a perfectly good sentence. It just doesn’t illustrate the problems we wanted to pose in the quiz.

  2. Fred B. says:

    One of my favorite shape-shifters is “aren’t I.” When did we ever say “are I not”?

    • That’s a good one. Aren’t I is clearly poor English, but since the only alternative is Am I not, which sounds a bit lofty, Aren’t I is acceptable informally.

  3. Jenna says:

    I am confused on two questions in the Blue Book (page 130):
    4. She was one of those cruise passengers who is/are always complaining.
    19. Nora is one of the candidates who is/are worthy of my vote.
    If I remove the extra information, I get “one is always complaining”… and “one is worthy of my vote.” The answer for both questions is “are.” I asked the kids’ English teachers for help and received the same answer. Is “are” strictly correct, or could the sentence be said either way? I read Rule 5 and it all still feels wrong.

    • In the first example, the word who refers to passengers, requiring the plural verb are. In the second sentence the word who refers to candidates, therefore the plural verb are is correct. You may find it helpful to look at these sentences this way:
      “Of those cruise passengers who are always complaining, she was one.”
      “Of those candidates who are worthy of my vote, she is one.”
      In grammar, we can’t always be governed by what we feel to be right. The casual misuse of English all around us, all day long, seeps into our brains and affects our judgment.

  4. Christopher says:

    How could “The culprit was they” be correct? The number of the subject complement does not match the verb. Perhaps you mean “The culprit was she“ or “The culprits were they.”

    • The sentence is a bit of a twister, but the context is that we didn’t know who was responsible for a particular misdeed. We at first thought the culprit might be an individual, but it turns out “it” was a group of two or more.

  5. Robert Cottrell says:

    Alice and I were (the ones/the people/those) for whom it was meant.

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