Author Topic: Common pitfalls when a pronoun and noun form a compound subject  (Read 14045 times)

Joe Carillo

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Common pitfalls when a pronoun and noun form a compound subject
« on: October 30, 2011, 06:48:52 PM »
We will recall that a basic rule in English grammar is that for a combination of a noun or pronoun to properly perform the action of a verb, or for them to jointly act as the compound subject of a sentence, they should both be in the same case, whether subjective or nominative, or objective. In short, we shouldn’t mix nouns and pronouns in different cases when we want them do a particular grammar function. In practice, however, this is easier said than done. A lot of inadvertent case mixing happens in both spoken and written English due to a lack of familiarity with both pronoun usage and case usage.*


In the essay below that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in October 2007, I explain the proper way to form compound subjects with nouns and pronouns, with particular emphasis on tricky situations—a few of them actually debatable—that often trip even professional writers. Keeping the prescriptions of this essay in mind should give you much greater confidence in handling those tricky situations. (October 30, 2011)

The proper way to form compound subjects with nouns and pronouns

A very common pronoun misuse problem occurs when a personal pronoun is joined with a noun or another pronoun by the conjunction “and” or “or” to form a compound subject. Many people, particularly in colloquial speech, tend to use the objective form of the personal pronoun in such constructions: “The president and him are now politically estranged.” “Both the competition and us will suffer because of this trade mess.” “Alicia and me have been close friends since kindergarten.” “You or me need to stay behind.”

No matter how correct-sounding they may seem, such constructions are grammatically incorrect and are likely to incur disapproval from English teachers and discerning employers. The grammar rule to remember here is to always use the subjective or nominative form of the personal pronoun: “The president and he are now politically estranged.” “Both the competition and we will suffer because of this trade mess.” “Alicia and I have been close friends since kindergarten.” “You or I need to stay behind.”

When the personal pronoun is the last element in the compound subject, people will have a stronger tendency to wrongly use its objective form. This is because the construction obscures the grammatical error and makes it sound aboveboard, as in this example given earlier: “The president and him are now politically estranged.” A good preemptive stylistic habit is to make the personal pronoun the first element instead: “He and the president are now politically estranged.” “Both we and the competition will suffer because of this trade mess.” This way, it becomes unmistakably clear that the personal pronoun should be in the subjective form.

In the spirit of modesty, however, we should always make the personal pronoun “I” an exception to this prescription. As we learned early in English grammar, it is good form to make “I” always the last element of the compound subject: “Alicia and I have been close friends since kindergarten.” “You or I need to stay behind.” (It sounds self-serving to use “I” ahead: “I and Alicia have been close friends since kindergarten.” “I or you need to stay behind.”

We’ll look into just three more contentious case usage problems before we close:

(1) Many people will catch themselves saying “This is just between you and I,” “According to you and they, the money was lost in transit,” and “Hardworking people like you and I need a break sometimes.” Some will invoke that even Shakespeare also had done so during his time, but the fact is that a grammar rule outlawing such usage became the English standard in the 1860s onwards. In your formal writing, therefore, you’ll always be grammatically in the right by using the objective form of the personal pronoun instead: “This is just between you and me.” “According to you and them, the money was lost in transit,” and “Hardworking people like you and me need a break sometimes.”

(2) You still can get into a heated grammar debate on whether to say “No one but I saw that controversial movie” or “No one but me saw that controversial movie,” or to say “No one except I came for the meeting” or “No one except me came for the meeting.” But in such constructions, good grammar will be on your side when you use the objective form of the personal pronoun: “No one but me saw that controversial movie.” “No one except me came for the meeting.”

(3) When using personal pronouns after forms of the verb “be,” do we say “That must be her on the escalator” (objective “her”) or “That must be she on the escalator” (nominative “she”)? Using the objective case may sound more natural than the nominative case, but you’re well advised to limit it to conversational use. Although the nominative case may sound pedantic, it is the grammatically acceptable choice in formal writing: “That must be she on the escalator.” (October 20, 2007)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in
The Manila Times, October 20, 2007 © 2007 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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*When combining pronouns with nouns, it’s very important to remember that it’s not only pronouns that have case. As we learn early in English grammar, pronouns in general inflect or change form in the nominative or subjective case, objective case, and possessive. Nouns also have case like pronouns, but the big difference between them is that nouns remain in the same form—they don’t  inflect at all—in the subjective, nominative, and objective cases. Only in the possessive case do nouns inflect by adding the apostrophe-s at their tail ends; for example, “That laptop is Alicia’s.”

So, when forming a compound subject with a noun and pronoun, keep in mind that they should both be in the same case, except that the noun doesn’t inflect at all and remains as is except in the possessive form. When compounding a pronoun and another pronoun, of course, we must make sure that both are in the same case, based on their correct inflected forms for that case.

For a comprehensive review of case usage and the English Pronoun Chart, click this link to “Lesson #3 – The Matter of Case in English” in the Forum.

« Last Edit: February 12, 2024, 08:19:22 AM by Joe Carillo »