Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Strange Case of He Versus Him, and Other Pronoun (Mis)applications

In Michael Jackson’s classic “The Girl Is Mine,” a duet with Paul McCartney in which a ménage a trois seems to be out of the question, Paul pleads to the unseen, unnamed girl, “I love you more than he.” I smile every time I hear this lyric because, in the context of the song, it is grammatically correct. What Paul is trying to get across to the girl is that there is no way in hell Michael loves her more than he, Paul, loves her. If Paul had sung, “I love you more than him,” a ménage a trois might be a possibility, because what he would actually be saying is that he loves her more than he loves Michael. (So the next time you profess your love in this comparative manor, choose your pronoun — he or him — wisely.) Let me show you what’s really at work here by supplying the “unsung” lyrics in brackets and alternating he and him:
“I love you more than he [loves you].”
“I love you more than [I love] him.”
He is known as a subjective, or nominative (from the Latin nomen, or “name”), pronoun, meaning it acts as the subject of a sentence and, many times, precedes the verb. You can see in the first, true, lyric above that “he” is the subject of the unsung “loves you.”

Him is an objective pronoun. It acts as the object of a verb in a sentence and, many times, follows the verb. In the second, made-up, lyric, you can see that “him” is the direct object of “I love.”

Sometimes proper English sounds strange to us. When we answer the phone and the caller asks for you, you respond, “This is he” or “It is I,” using a nominative pronoun. Why? Because in this instance, “I” really acts as the subject of the sentence. Let me show you by rearranging the sentence a little: “I am the person to whom you are speaking.” Grammatically, we use nominative pronouns when they follow “to be” verbs because they act as the subject. What follows the “to be” verb is called the subjective complement and the pronouns that are a part of this subjective complement become predicate pronouns. (I’ll admit, it’s not so easy to commit these grammar concepts to memory, but if you are a word nerd as much as I, you’ve already done so.)

I would go out on a limb and state that pronouns have become the most notoriously abused part of speech in the new millennium; I’ve noticed in general conversational speech, and also on television shows, that people are misusing them more and more. This, in turn, infects our minds until we begin to misapply pronouns liberally. So to help you distinguish which pronouns to use in which circumstances, here is a little pronoun chart you may remember from English class. It will help you distinguish between pronouns that act as subjects and those that act as objects:

Nominative (Subjective) Case
she, he, it, who
they, who

Objective Case
her, him, it, whom
them, whom

(As you can see from the charts, you, who, and whom can be either singular or plural, depending, of course, on the number of persons involved.)

Steve, my partner, observes keenly that “people try to be too right” when choosing pronouns, and, in their pursuit of the correct pronoun, chose the wrong one. Probably the most common example of misuse involves pronouns that are the object of a preposition. How many times have we heard people start a sentence, “Between you and I.” This, of course, is incorrect. Objective, not nominative, case pronouns are required after the word between, which is a preposition. (Prepositions are words that begin phrases that help further explain, say, temporal or spatial relationships.) For example, in the James Taylor song “Shed a Little Light,” Taylor sings, “Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King and recognize that there are ties between us.” “Us” is the object of the preposition “between”; therefore, it is an objective case pronoun. Now change “us” to its synonym “you and me.” We use me instead of I because me is also an objective pronoun. If you get confused, just remember that you would never say “between we.” So why would you ever say “between you and I”? We are so conditioned to say “you and I” when I acts as a nominative pronoun that we begin to use the phrase “you and I” at all times, even when we shouldn’t. This is what Steve means when he says we try to be too right.

Some of you may be saying, “Relax already, so what if I choose the wrong pronoun every now and then? It’s my right as an American to speak colloquially.” Terrific, speak colloquially with your nonjudgmental friends, but what if you happen to be on a job interview or are trying to impress some clients or a first date? Discussing your love for the culinary arts, you relate a story that begins “Me and him went to the fishmonger for some bottarga to shave over our homemade spaghetti.” In this example, the wrong case (objective) is evoked. It should be the nominative (subjective) case; therefore, your story should begin “I and he,” or better yet, “He and I.” Listen to yourself speak and you’ll be surprised how often you sound like Cookie Monster, who’s always proclaiming, “Me want cookie!” We Americans get too relaxed sometimes and have a difficult time distinguishing between nominative and objective cases, especially when there are two pronouns involved. Remember, sometimes speaking colloquially can make you sound, well, just plain colloquial.

So, to iterate, use a nominative case pronoun when you need a subject for your sentence and the objective case when your pronoun acts as the direct object of a verb or the object of a preposition. You will never be embarrassed on a date or job interview again (unless, of course, you’re with Cookie Monster). But when you’re with friends or family, you should feel free to speak however you choose.