Giving those pesky pronouns a sound hearing
Posted: Friday, January 14, 2011 8:01 pm
By: By Glenda Caudle
I am no authority on proper use of the language my forefathers claimed as their own.
However, I once spent the night at a quaint inn near Salisbury, England, where several famous British authors had slept in years gone by.
You may take that level of expertise into account as you read my suggestions for acceptable use of my mother tongue, with specific focus today on appropriate pronoun selection.
Shall we begin?
If you are unsure (when contemplating verbalizing a sentence utilizing a first-person pronoun in conjunction with another pronoun or a noun) whether to select “I” or “me” and you can’t recall (or never learned because you were napping or chatting in language arts class) the rules for using the subjective — that would be “I” —or objective — that, it follows, would be “me” — pronoun, be confused no longer.
To be assured of future acceptance in polite company and the unqualified respect of those older and better educated than you are, simply utilize this test, which is entirely sound in its application: Silently run the sentence through your head and take out the noun or the “other” pronoun, leaving only the personal pronoun, and see which one your mind’s ear tells you is right.
Here is an example.
The sentence you wish actually to speak is this one: “The teacher told Jim and (I, me) to study hard for the test.”
Quietly filter the sentence through your brain cells without the noun “Jim” in it, and see whether “I” or “me” sounds best to you all by itself. I am reasonably certain, unless you are truly devoted to torturous misuse of the English language, that you will select “me,” causing the sentence to speed merrily through your gray matter in this fashion: “The teacher told me to study hard for the test.”
Now, reinsert the noun “Jim” and confidently proclaim aloud: “The teacher told Jim and me to study hard for the test.”
There is a sound (meaning rock-solid) grammatical reason “me” is the correct choice — something beyond the fact that it sounds (with reference to your senses) right — but don’t worry about that at this point. Just apply the hearing test by eliminating the extra word(s) and you will automatically make the right decision.
It is astounding how many people will select “I” if they fail to utilize this simple exercise, because they have some dim recollection of having been drilled on the importance of using that first-person pronoun correctly in sentence structure. Unfortunately, they no longer remember what makes “I” the preferred choice on some occasions, so they simply opt for it because it somehow sounds more sophisticated (and “I” certainly aspires to sophistication).
Sadly, they sometimes opt incorrectly.
Now try this simple exercise on your own. Select the correct first-person pronoun in the following sentence: “The teacher is upset at you and (me, I).” This is probably because the two of you failed to study hard for the aforementioned test, but that is neither here nor there at the moment.
The correct answer in this case is “me” (once again) and there is a truly excellent — but slightly different — reason for it, but you don’t have to remember that reason if you just apply the elimination/sound test described above.
Simply get rid of the “you” and see what sounds best with what is left. Clearly, it is, “The teacher is upset at me.” On a purely personal note, I am truly sorry that you have incurred your educator’s wrath, but you brought it on yourself by failing to study the lesson on pronouns.
Now, when you are ready to put your mouth in motion, you can do so confidently and state unequivocally and with your original intent, “The teacher is upset at you and me.”
Although, heaven knows, she no longer has much reason to be, since you are progressing so nicely in your current grammatical studies.
Moving right along.
Try this one next: “The smartest student was (me, I).”
Aha, you protest, there is no noun or second pronoun paired with this tricky little first-person choice that I can remove. So what am I to do?
I have a suggestion: Flip the sentence on its wordy head and perform the magical sound test on it: “(Me, I) was the smartest student.”
I am giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming you will choose “I” (at long last) in this instance.
You will be correct if you do and you can make, therefore, a realistic claim on actually being the smartest student. It will not matter if you actually voice it in the reversed form or if you take your newfound knowledge and select the initial construction so that you forcefully utter your thoughts in this way: “The smartest student was I.”
And you clearly were.
I can quote chapter and verse why all this will be so, but all you really need to know is how to make the language work for you, rather than against you.
Quite frankly, if you didn’t grasp the basics of pronoun selection in fourth-grade language arts, I despair of educating you in a newspaper column, but if you feel you must have the technical explanation for the pronoun selection recommended above, e-mail me at glenda email@example.com and I will lay it all out for you in 7,000 words or more.
Tune in again next time when we will attempt to unravel the mysteries of “fewer/less,” “further/farther” “alter/altar” and “compliment/complement.”
In the future, we may even tackle the dreaded and frightfully embarrassing “dangling participle,” which can stifle polite conversation and cause lucrative job offers to be abruptly withdrawn.
And if the pedagogical prospect I have just laid out for you fails to boost your capacity for grammatical excitement to heretofore unattainable levels, I despair that anything ever shall.
Bless your heart.
Special Features Editor Glenda Caudle may be contacted by e-mail at glenda firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger 1.14.11