Episode 54: Pronoun Pros and Cons

The Modern English pronouns were largely inherited from the Anglo-Saxons.  While many of them have survived intact, others have changed quite a bit over the centuries. Some disappeared, some new ones were created, and some were even borrowed from the Vikings. This time we explore the history of the English personal pronouns. We also examine the historical roots of the modern confusion surrounding the proper use of English personal pronouns.

15 thoughts on “Episode 54: Pronoun Pros and Cons

  1. Pingback: Talking to the Crowd – BFFProofreading

  2. Is there an episode where you discuss the articles (a, an, the) and how the rules for these evolved?

    • Hi Abhilash,

      I discussed the development of the articles ‘a’ and ‘an’ in Episodes 48 and 79. I discussed the development of the article ‘the’ in Episode 76.

  3. Regarding “between you and me” vs “between you and I”, are you familiar with the saying “between you, me and the gatepost” (as in “what I’m about to say next is confidential”)? It wouldn’t ‘sound right’ to say “between you, I and the gatepost” so that might help people remember that one.

  4. Regarding “It is I” vs “It is me”, it might help people to think of ‘the rest of the sentence’ as my parents would say. For example, if someone were to ask, “Who is standing at the door and knocking?” the ‘full’ answer would be, “It is I who is standing outside and knocking,” not “It is me who is standing outside and knocking.”

    Similarly, when referring to someone else it would be “It is he who stands outside and knocks,” not “It is him who stands outside and knocks.” 🙂

  5. And a third thing (I’m doing it this way to make it easier for people to comment on one topic but not everything if they don’t want to)…

    “who” vs “whom”
    When asking a question such as “Whom did he give the ball to?” it can make it easier to see that it is “whom” not “who” in that leading position if one keeps the preposition “to” with its object “whom” – see, there is a reason for that “no finishing a sentence with a preposition rule” as it helps keep straight subject vs object. 😉 So it becomes, “To whom did he give the ball?” (not “To who did he give the ball?”).

  6. Hi Kevin,

    It’s funny how different languages find different, often contradictory solutions to linguistic problems. While English has one form for the second person and three for the third person, Hungarian is exactly the opposite and has three forms for the second person (familiar, formal and really formal) but only one form for the third person (yup, there’s no difference between “he” and “she”). Sounds like it would be really confusing, but somehow it works. You can basically always tell by the context whether the pronoun is referring to “he” or “she”.

    I’m not sure how the Hungarians developed this way of doing things, but it just goes to show that we can always learn something by learning new languages and that the way we do things isn’t the only way.

    (The other thing I love about Hungarian is that you don’t need to use the plural form of the noun if you precede it by a word that indicates more than one, i.e. “two cat”, “many cat”. That’s efficiency for you!)

  7. I have only recently come across the website and find it very enjoyable and informative. I have wanted to comment on a couple of earlier episodes only to find that you dealt with the points in the next episode. Maybe this is another case but I really wanted to say some things on this one.

    You dealt with linking verbs such as ‘to be’ and said that using subject verb subject was brought in about 500 years ago and “did not come from Old English”. What about lines 237 and 249 of Beowulf where we get
    “Hwa sindon ge …” and “nis þæt seld-guma”
    In the accusative object “ge” would be “eow” and “guma” would be “guman”
    And in the Peterborough Chronicle in 987 AD we get
    “Se cyng Willelm þe we embe specaþ wæs swiðe wis man 7 swiðe rice” and “se cyng wæs swa swiðe stearc”
    In the accusative object “wis” would be “wise”, “rice” would be “ricne” and “stearc” would be “stearcne”

    For “You and I” I use your “dropping the other noun rule” to get it right.

    With who and whom I use whom for the indirect object (dative) from the Old English hwæm. Then I use who for the subject (nominative) from the Old English hwa and for the direct object (accusative) from the Old English hwone.
    I have a problem with the genitive. I think that I use whose for the possessive genitive as in “A few of whose books” but whom in the partitive genitive as in “A few of whom”.

    • Hi David. Great question, and I love the specific examples you included. I can’t really explain the exceptions you’ve cited other than to suggest that Old English grammar didn’t always adhere to strict rules like modern grammar does (or is supposed to do). It is important to note that the modern rules of grammar weren’t adopted until the Modern English period. Any discussion of grammar before that point is largely based on the general rules of usage at the time based upon the surviving documents from that period. So I suspect that the examples you cited simply reflect the variability of grammar in Old English. Of course, the same thing happens today to a certain extent. It is common for English writers to violate the strict rules of English grammar, and it’s even more common for English speakers to do so. So that’s my best guess for the examples you cited.

  8. I am not convinced. Often the nominative is the same as the accusative. I would have read them as nominative whereas you would have read them as the accusative. I gave some cases where they had to be nominative and not accusative. Can you give some examples where they had to be accusative and not nominative.

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