The case of the pronoun

Posted on Sep 17, 2012 | Comments Off on The case of the pronoun

There should be no mystery to choosing the correct pronoun to use in a sentence; it’s all about the case. Case indicates the pronoun’s relationship to the other words in the sentence, and it’s determined by how the pronoun functions in its own clause.

There are three cases of pronouns:

  1. Nominative (also called subjective): the pronoun is the subject of a verb; it does something (“He suddenly jumped out of his chair.”). I, we, you, he, she, they, who, it.
  2. Objective: the pronoun is the object of a preposition or verb; something is done to it (“The detective stared at him.”). Me, us, you, him, her, them, whom, it.
  3. Possessive: the pronoun modifies a noun (“His eye started to twitch.”). My/mine, our/ours, yours, his, her/hers, their/theirs, whose, its.

Typically, the correct case will be obvious, but if not, you can determine it by isolating the clause and stripping it down to just the subject, verb and object:

  • “The detective pointed at him as he walked out the door.” can be stripped down to: “The detective pointed at him” (object) and “he walked” (subject).

Sometimes, you’ll have to rearrange the words to identify the subject and object:

  • “The only one looking guilty was he.” can be rearranged to read: “He was the only one looking guilty.”

Now, in case you were wondering, there are some tips for a few special circumstances.

When a pronoun follows a verb form of “to be,” it acts like a subject, so use the nominative case (at least in formal writing; most people use the objective case in everyday speech):

  • “Who’s the culprit? It’s I.”

When the pronoun is part of a compound subject or object, identify the case by deleting the other component:

  • “[The detective and] he scuffled.”
  • “We applauded [the detective and] him when the play was over.”

When a pronoun appears after the word “than,” the case depends on the meaning of the sentence:

  • “I like the detective better than [I like] him.”
  • “I like the detective better than he [likes the detective].”

Case closed!