March 7, 2018

A Case of Pronoun Misuse

Pronouns are the only words in the English language to have retained case. Case is a marker for the purpose a word is serving in a sentence - is it the subject of a verb (the nominative case) or the object of a verb (the accusative case)? Some languages, like Russian, mark case on every single word. English used to be like this way back in the 1300s, but things have changed a little since then and now the only remnants of case are on our pronouns. As a result, there's confusion over how to use pronouns and their case.

Let's look at our pronouns. The nominative case is in the left column and the accusative in the right column.

Nominative Nominative Example Accusative Accusative Example
I I like pie. Me The cops arrested me.
You You can dance. You Johnny liked you.
He Will he go to work? Him She gave him a soda.
She She said she wanted cereal. Her The news bothered her.
We We can do anything. Us Stop telling us about that new song.
They They aren't helping out. Them When do we tell them to go home?
It The computer, it's not working. It I spilled soda on it.
Thou (obsolete) Thou art a happy man. Thee I love thee.
Who That's the woman who likes pie. Whom That's the woman whom the cops arrested.

You'll notice that not every pronoun even has a distinct accusative case. You and it are the same no matter what you do. I've included "thou" in there as a comparison. We don't exactly use "thou" much nowadays, but "thou" functions exactly like other pronouns with regards to case.

So many people are confused about "X and Y" constructions. There's a lot of people thinking that you can never say "and me," or that it's ungrammatical to start a conjunction with I (*?I and he went to the store). There's no real reason for that second one other than stylistic preference, and the first one is a misunderstanding of how cases work.

Todd: We have unfinished business, I and he.
Scott: He and me.
Todd: Don't you talk to me about grammar!

This misunderstanding is capitalized upon in this scene from Scott Pilgrim where Scott "corrects" Todd's grammar. The problem is that Scott's version is actually worse. In colloquial English, you could say "him and me" in this context. In standard English, "he and I" would be preferred. "I and he" is odd, but the case fits. "he and me" mixes case together, which doesn't really work! Perhaps Scott speaks a variety of English where case in conjunctive constructions like this is completely optional and arbitrary or it has to rhyme or something.

Now that you know the standard for joining two pronouns with "and" (and knowing that these are just formal rules and aren't present in colloquial English), you're ready to understand what's off about the following three songs.

Him and I

"Cross my heart, hope to die
To my lover, I'd never lie
He said "be true", I swear I'll try
In the end, it's him and I." - Him & I, G-Eazy ft. Halsey

We should expect "it's he and I" per prescriptivist rules and "it's him and me" or "me and him" by common usage. Here it's obvious that the "I" was chosen to rhyme with try/lie/die. The "him" is interesting: "Him and me" would be acceptable in colloquial English (though it wouldn't rhyme). Perhaps "It's he and I" sounds too formal in this situation. "Him and I" won't win you any points from a strict English teacher, but it serves the rhyme and doesn't sound too stilted.

About You and I

"Something about my cool Nebraska guy
Something about, baby, you and I." - You and I, Lady Gaga

Usage of the nominative case in an object position... for the use of rhyming... Lady Gaga, what won't you do? When you put a pronoun after a preposition, that pronoun has to be in the accusative case. If we changed the song to remove the "you," the correct form would be "Something about me," not *"Something about I." Nevertheless, a lot of people are using "you and I" even after prepositions nowadays... people like Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama.

Don't Run We

"We run things; things don't run we.
Don't take nothin' from nobody." - We Can't Stop

I remember this line being mocked and derided back when it came out in 2013. It's using ungrammatical constructions to force a rhyme - two sins of songwriting! But I must defend this one because I think there was a second effect of using the wrong case here. By using the nominative, they create a reflection: "We run things" vs "Things (don't) run we." Were it "things don't run us," you would lose that economy of words.

Can you think of any other cases where somebody uses an unexpected pronoun case? What's your opinion on this sort of creative liberty? Sound off below!

The Girl From Ipanema

"But each day, when she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead, not at he."

- The Girl From Ipanema

Miley Cyrus is actually not the first one to use the nominative case in an object position. The original recording of "The Girl From Ipanema," from the album Getz/Gilberto and sung by Astrud Gilberto, uses the same construction for rhyming reasons. In case you think she's actually saying "him," I've included the live video. Notice her lips don't close at the end of "he," meaning she's saying "he" and not "him." The English lyrics were written by an American lyricist, Norman Gimbert, so it sounds purposeful as opposed to being a mistake on the singer's part.

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