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Watching The Bachelor Australia recently, I cringed at these (and other) remarks made by the participants in the space of just a couple of minutes:

  1. I’m really proud of Lisa and I.
  2. Could you see a future with Sam or I?

This is the standard of pronoun usage that I have come to expect of your average (supposedly educated) member of Generation Y. It seems that many Australians have not been taught English grammar properly and do not understand how to apply it.

To be fair, the problem is not confined to any particular generation or to Australia. I noted a similar pronoun blunder in the first season of the American series Homeland, when one of the characters said:

  1. ‘So I don’t know if I should be celebrating or putting my son and I into witness protection.’

Can you hear the problem in this sentence? How do you know whether you would say ‘my son and I’, ‘my son and me’ or ‘my son and myself’ in this sentence?

If you’re unsure, it can help to take out the extra object: if the result sounds wrong, it probably is.

You wouldn’t say ‘I’m really proud of I’, you’d say ‘I’m really proud of myself.’ Therefore, you would say ‘I’m really proud of Lisa and myself.’ The fact that another person is with you in the sentence does not change the basic grammatical structure. Similarly, you would say ‘She and I are proud of you’ rather than ‘Her and I are proud of you.’

In case you’re still unsure which pronoun to use, I have drawn up a reference table of pronouns, including pronoun functions that tend to be misapplied. To check for correct pronoun use, break the sentence down to identify the subject and (direct) object and any indirect object, and note whether the subject is performing an action upon itself.

Guide to personal, possessive and reflexive pronoun functions
  Subject

(nominative case)

(Who is pedantic?)

Object

(accusative case)

(Clowns scare whom?)

Indirect object

(dative case)

(Whom or to whom did the teacher give a book?)

Possessive

(genitive case)

(Whose book is this?)

 

Reflexive

(where the action being performed reflects on or affects the subject)

First person singular I

I am pedantic.

me

Clowns scare me.

me

The teacher gave me a book.

The teacher gave a book to me.

mine

This book is mine.

This book of mine is fantastic!

myself

I did it myself.

I hurt myself.

I gave myself a present.

Second person singular you

You are pedantic.

you

Clowns scare you.

you

The teacher gave you a book.

The teacher gave a book to you.

yours

This book is yours.

This book of yours is fantastic!

yourself

You did it yourself.

You hurt yourself.

You gave yourself a present.

Third person singular he/she/it

He is pedantic.

him/her/it

Clowns scare him.

 

him/her/it

The teacher gave him a book.

The teacher gave a book to him.

his/hers

This book is his.

This book of his is fantastic!

himself/herself/itself

He did it himself.

He hurt himself.

He gave himself a present.

First person plural we

We are pedantic.

us

Clowns scare us.

us

The teacher gave us a book.

The teacher gave a book to us.

ours

This book is ours.

This book of ours is fantastic!

ourselves

We did it ourselves.

We hurt ourselves.

We gave ourselves a present.

Second person plural you

You are pedantic.

you

Clowns scare you.

you

The teacher gave you a book.

The teacher gave a book to you.

yours

This book is yours.

This book of yours is fantastic!

yourselves

You did it yourselves.

You hurt yourselves.

You gave yourselves a present.

Third person Plural they

They are pedantic.

them

Clowns scare them.

them

The teacher gave them a book.

The teacher gave a book to them.

theirs

This book is theirs.

This book of theirs is fantastic!

themselves

They did it themselves.

They hurt themselves.

They gave themselves a present.

Note: This table covers personal, possessive and reflexive pronouns but not demonstrative pronouns, relative pronouns or determiners. The generic pronoun ‘one’ (reflexive oneself, possessive one’s) is also excluded.

© Julia & Anton Maurus

Take example 2: ‘Could you (subject) see a future (object) with Sam or [?] (indirect object)?’ The pronoun we need here is the dative first-person singular (‘me’): ‘Could you see a future with me?’

Now consider example 3, cut down to basics: ‘Should I (subject) be putting my son and [?] (object) into witness protection (indirect object)?’

The pronoun ‘me’ is used to refer to a first-person singular object. However, the subject of the sentence is performing an action upon herself, therefore the pronoun must indicate a reflexive action: ‘Should I be putting myself (reflexive) into witness protection?’

In example 3, the speaker incorrectly used ‘I’ instead of ‘myself’. Yet it is just as common for people to use ‘myself’ when they should use ‘me’. How often have you read in an email ‘Should you have any queries, please contact myself’? In a casual conversation, however, have you ever heard someone say something like ‘My mum sent myself a birthday present’? Of course not. The correct grammatical construction in both cases involves the personal pronoun ‘me’, not the reflexive ‘myself’.

Some may consider it acceptable to use the reflexive pronoun ‘myself’ like this in formal and professional contexts, but the grammatical logic of our language dictates that a reflexive pronoun should only be used where the action that the subject performs reflects upon or affects the subject, not the object of the sentence. The word ‘self’ in ‘yourself’, ‘himself’, ‘herself’, ‘itself’ is a reminder that these pronouns are meant to be used only when the action reflects onto the actor. I cannot contact yourself, but I can contact you.

I am concerned that many think that interchanging personal pronouns (as in the examples presented here) makes a communication sound more formal or erudite, when all it shows is that the communicator does not understand the structure of the English language. Thankfully, I am yet to hear anyone say, ‘Can you please help I?’ The pronoun ‘me’ may be becoming neglected, but it isn’t redundant. We must be mindful that every pronoun has its place.

 

The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 386 (December 2014–February 2014).

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