The object of my affection

By Michele Callaghan, manuscript editor

I am breaking with my usual practice of offering commentary on the state of publishing or whatever else is on my mind. A part of speech that I have cared about since Mrs. Valerio’s eighth grade French class is in trouble: the pronoun.

We English speakers are really lucky. Students of Latin will remember that simple nouns like mensa (table) have up to twelve cases with names like nominative, dative, and ablative. In Irish, the verb is usually at the beginning of the sentence, what we see as the subject of the sentence is often the object, and prepositions are key. Ta ocras orm—“It is the hunger that is on me” for “I’m hungry”—is one example. In German, nouns can be male, female, or neuter, and then have different forms depending on how they are used.   

Over time, our language got rid of one case or another. Most of our nouns are only singular or plural. But we do retain one important distinction: our pronouns are different depending on whether something or someone is acting (the subject) or having something done to it (the object). So “I” the subject becomes “me” the object, “she” becomes “her,” “we” becomes “our,” and so on. Unless the Cookie Monster or some other Muppet is talking, people would use “I” when they are acting in some way (“I went to see John yesterday.”). If I want to substitute a pronoun for John in that sentence, I will use “him,” not “he.” I am still performing the action; John is the object of my action.

Many people who would never dream of switching the subject and object in the example above get thrown off when the word “between” is added into the mix. I won’t list all the common grammatical errors I come across, but “between you and I” is definitely among them. If you are one of the those who gets confused by this, here is a way to think about it. If the pronoun is substituting for the actor, use the subject version. If something is happening to it or it is describing extra information, use the object version. In the sentence “I sat between John and Jill,” “I” is the subject, and “sat” is the verb. “Between him and her” or “between them” just gives more detail about where I sat in this sentence. If John and Jill want to be the subjects, they need to get their own sentence in which they do the sitting!

So, dear reader, remember that pronouns deserve our affection. They save us from talking ourselves in the third person (“Michele wrote this blog.”), from oodles of repetition (“John used John’s phone to invite Michele to eat dinner with John at John’s house.”), and even allow emphasis (“He did it” or “Mom always liked you best!”). They are not interchangeable, though. It sounds poetic to use the Irish syntax by employing expressions like “the hunger is on me.” However, I wouldn’t want my bed to lie on me or my groceries to buy me at the store. I like my pronouns just the way they are.