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GETTING TO KNOW ENGLISH
How the English personal pronouns inflect for case
Previously, I explained why the nominative and subjective cases are lumped as just a single case in modern English, then pointed out that nouns don’t inflect or change form at all in these two cases and in the objective case as well. Indeed, only in the possessive do nouns inflect by taking the suffix apostrophe-“s”, as in “The Pope’s visit required unprecedented security measures.” That’s all. (“Why the nominative and subjective are lumped as just a single case”)
Not so with the pronouns, however. Many of them inflect for case depending on person (first, second, or third), number (singular or plural), and gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter). And nowhere are the inflections more pronounced—and more bewildering to English learners—than in the personal pronouns, which typically change form to show whether they are serving as subject of a clause, as object of a verb, or as object of a preposition.
Let’s start with the singular first-person pronoun. Its form is “I” in the nominative or subjective case, as in “I watched the crowd” and “I am impressed.” In the objective case, it inflects to “me” as direct object, as in “She chose me”; as indirect object, as in “She gave me hope”; and as object of the preposition, as in “She dedicated the book to me.” Then in the possessive case, it inflects to “mine,” as in “That car is mine.”
Now see what happens to the first-person pronoun in plural form. It inflects to “we” in the nominative or subjective case, as in “We watched the parade” and “We were stunned by the massive crowd.” In the objective case, it inflects to “us” as direct object, as in “The Pope blessed us”; as indirect object, as in “He gave us his benediction”; and as object of the preposition, as in “He commiserated with us.” Then in the possessive case, it inflects to “ours,” as in “The court ruled that the farm is now ours.”
The second-person pronoun is unique in that it doesn’t inflect at all in the nominative or subjective case and in the objective case as well. It takes the form “you” for both singular and plural, as in the nominative “You came just when we needed you” and in the subjective “You are generous.” It’s also “you” in the objective case, whether as direct object, as in “We wish you well”; indirect object, as in “They owe you a big favor”; or object of the preposition, as in “Tonight she’ll send the invitation to you.” Only in the possessive case does it inflect—to “yours,” as in “That car is fully paid so it’s now yours.”
For English learners, the third-person pronoun proves most difficult because it inflects in all three grammatical cases not only for number but also for gender. The nominative or subjective singular forms are the masculine “he,” the feminine “she,” and the neuter “it,” as in “He/She joined the entourage,” “He/She is a believer,” and “As to your contribution, it is enough.” The objective case singular forms are the masculine “him,” the feminine “her,” and the neuter “it,” as in “They brought him/her/it to Rizal Park.” The possessive singular forms are the masculine “his” and the feminine “hers,” as in “The controversial mansion turned out to be his/hers.” The neuter “its” only works as a possessive adjective, as in “As to that appliance, convenience is its major advantage.”
The plural forms of the third-person pronoun are easier to learn because they don’t inflect as much for case. In the nominative or subjective case, the third-person pronoun inflects to “they,” as in “They reconciled just now” and “They are part of the entourage.” In the objective case, it inflects to “them,” as in “We welcomed them despite our differences.” Then in the possessive case, it inflects to “theirs,” as in “That decision was theirs, not ours.” (January 16, 2015)
This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times on January 16, 2015 © 2015 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.