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.


59 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.” 🙂

      • There is an obscure rule, doubtless dragged in from Latin, that both the subject and object of an infinitive is in an oblique case. In English this means the objective. Similarly, the subject or object of a gerund is in the possessive: “The city’s destruction of the enemy” and “The city’s destruction by the enemy”.

  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?”).

      • Your point about the levelling of some of these pronouns and who Vs whom is interesting, as I would argue that this has already happened. I never use the word whom and always just use who. It sounds really old fashioned to use whom. In fact I would go as far as saying only people who are showing off their grammar skills would use whom.

        I am in the North of England (Yorkshire) so not sure if it’s just a regional thing? Happy to be proved wrong and told it’s just me!!

        • I’m an English teacher and have been noticing this development – from whom to who – over the past decades. I used to quote Chief Inspector Morse (of the TV series) to my students when they used who but should – according to the grammar book – have used whom: “Whom, Lewis, whom”, he would correct his (working class) sergeant. But I no longer correct my students (unless they are writing something very formal), because as Ben says, in British English whom is now generally regarded as old fashioned and formal. But I think this change (to only using who) is happening much more slowly in US English though.

        • I agree, and I’m in Canada. “Whom” is on its way out. But it will be a a long time a’dying. Just like those Latin grammar rules that were pointlessly imposed on English. (Yes, you CAN split an infinitive, AND end a sentence with a preposition. And that’s according to both Shakespeare and Winston Churchill.)

          • Just want to add that ending a sentence with a preposition is not always OK. But it is if the preposition part of a verbal phrase. When Churchill wrote a sentence ending with a preposition, and some underling changed it to follow the grammar “rule”, the story is that Churchill wrote in an angry memo: “This is interference up with which I will not put!” which makes the point that we speak English, not Latin.

        • ‘Whom’ is not ‘old fashioned’, it’s just the object (accusative) form of ‘who’, and this form is used after a preposition. E.g. “who to?’ Or ‘to whom’.

  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!)

    • Hungarian, according to Nicola, apparently has the same pronoun for “he” and “she.” The same is true of Mandarin Chinese: the sound “ta” means “he, she, or it” (the written language contains different forms for he 他 she 她 and it 它, but they were introduced in modern times to facilitate translations from languages that have gendered pronouns. Chinese also does not change the word to indicate singular or plural, like Hungarian.

      Another thing, not reported by Nicola, is that in both Hungarian and Chinese the family name precedes the given name. If Kevin or other readers know why these similarities, kindly share!

      • I don’t really have an answer regarding the similarities between Hungarian and Chinese. I know that Hungarian has a significant Turkic (Eurasian) influence, but I don’t think that explains the common features you mentioned.

  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.

    • From what I can gather, Old English does indeed utilize predicate nominatives when it comes to the use of a copula, i.e. it uses the nominative case with presumably stative “linking verbs.” In other words, I think that David Hinch’s hunch is right: [subject] [copula] [subject] yields nominative on both sides of the verb.

    • This is one of those questions where I am at a bit of a disadvantage because I did the research for the episode several years ago, and I didn’t keep all of my notes for easy reference. I am sure that I pulled the comment about the origin of linking verbs from one of the many books in my small personal library. I will try to track down that source and clarify the comment. I know that I will do much more on the development of grammar once I get to the early Modern English period, so I will probably re-visit some of that linking verb research then.

  9. Hello

    Surely modern English IS dealing with some of this – in the case of “whom” – almost nobody uses it anymore in everyday English and it is usually unnecessary to convey meaning.

    Can’t be long before grammarians acknowledge whom has died out, except for stock expressions such as “to whom it may concern”.

  10. Just because many people frequently use the formal version of thou etc. doesn’t mean the proper version isn’t correct.

    Excessive politeness?

    You say they were ‘pushed out’ in the 1600s yet you quote modern usage. Confused?

    • Maybe I’m misunderstanding your question, but I don’t think I quoted any examples of “thou” or “thee” in “modern usage” after the 1600s when they disappeared from common use in standard English. Of course, those words still exist in older works of literature. They may also exist in some non-standard dialects, and some writers still use them in poetry to reflect an older style of speech. So it isn’t wrong or incorrect to use them. I just wanted to make the point that they are no longer considered to be the proper form in modern standard English.

  11. These are not “rules” they are opinions and preferences made by people in a position of assumed authority. Latin rules do not apply to English.

  12. This episode is a bit frustrating. Kevin says that Old English did not have the concept of a linking verb, which sounds odd given that it is a feature of most Indo-European languages I know. Is there evidence that “It is me” would be ungrammatical in Old English? I would be interested in learning about the influence of French with regard to that construction.

  13. I knew a weird old lady, once, who said “It am I” (instead of “It is me” or “It is I”) and who tried to get others to do the same: on the ground that we were idiots because we didn’t.

  14. At time-stamp 49:25 – 49:30, he says: “It has sowed the seeds of doubt”: why doesn’t he say “has sown”? I thought I spoke this language natively : am I wrong? Have I been wrong throughout 50-odd years (I’m 55) of speaking English?

    • From what I understand, both sown and sowed are acceptable as the past participle in modern English; though traditionally, I presume sown would indeed function as the participle while sowed would function as the simple past. But I don’t actually know if employing sowed as the participle is a relatively contemporary use, or if it’s been around for a while.

    • I’m sure the original comment was tongue in cheek, but according to my sources, “have sowed” and “have sown” are both considered standard English. Obviously, usage varies from person to person and region to region.

  15. I looked it up and it seems that the word, “The” is the most used word it is not the word, “I”. (Mistake at 2:25)

    • I’m not sure there is a definitive list of the most commonly used words in English. Over the years, I have come across several such lists, and they all vary to some degree. By the way, the source I used was “The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists,” 4th ed., and it lists “I” first and the word “the” second.

  16. I am enjoying your podcast, Kevin. It’s very interesting how our language came to be. I started with episode 1; I am currently in episode 59. Thanks for sharing this wealth of knowledge.

  17. On the h being dropped from hit and hem, the initial h has come and gone quite a bit over the centuries. 150 years ago, for instance, it was considered vulgar to pronounce it for a whole range of words where it’s correct now, such as “humour”.

  18. I LOVE this podcast. As a person who failed to learn history because of the abysmal teaching methods of public school (like most of us), I find this podcast to be a rare, excellent way of learning quite a bit of history. (Indirect learning is far superior to direct learning for most things, including history.) You explain things very well, making it really illuminating for those of us who are undereducated but not dumb. Kudos!

  19. I found it jarring to say a linking verb can have an object. I’ve always taught my students that the objective case shows the object of an action. But linking verbs don’t reflect action. I recognize it may just be a matter of terminology. Nonetheless, I have really enjoyed listening to podcast and found it amusing that you expressed the same kind of frustration with the exceptions as my ESL students do.

  20. Are you sure that plural-you-as-formal-you came from France?

    This form also exists in German. Did they get it from French influence (which, I mean, it existed for a while, but they were historically resistent to it), or from old German?

  21. C’mon Aussies! Time to call out the “bogan speak” prevalent in Straya nowadays.

    I disappointed that not one Australian has pointed out the commonly used plural form of you which is ‘youse’ as in “I love youse all”.

    Of course, the use of this plural form instantly marks the speaker as someone of lower education and/or IQ, but that doesn’t stop its frequent use!

    • I grew up in a region of the United States (Philadelphia and southern New Jersey) that also used “youse” as a plural form of you. It’s pronounced like the Japanese “yuzu” plant without the final u, so it’s not a true homonym of “use”.

  22. Hi Kevin:
    Having come late to the podcast, I am still poking along – now to #54.
    I found some comments there which I must remark on. (Thank you Mr. Churchill)
    I am a retired educator who spent 10 years in the classroom teaching Latin, English, and even a little Greek – in Canada. I am a grammar traditionalist – with two degrees in Classics, how could I not be – and I like “whom”. I am with Morse on that one (he was and remains (also copula) one of my faves of all time); he was a classicist too if I recall correctly.
    I’d probably say “To whom should I give the ball?” and poof the problem would vanish!
    For those who blame Latin for rules about split infinitives, most Latin (and Greek) infinitives are single words, i.e., unsplittable. E.g., amare – to love. Ergo, the Romans are not guilty! It is a rare preposition in either language that could ever end a sentence; so I doubt a rule was ever contemplated.
    “It am I” is egregiously incorrect since the subject “it” is 3rd singular. “I” is correct if you are being strict since it is a subjective completion after a copula verb – therefore nominative. Nevertheless I often sin by saying It’s me (as in the gospel hymn “standing in the need of prayer”). But not in the example above since more problems lurk.
    The extension cited, “It is I who is standing” is also incorrect since the “who” refers back to (and stands for) “I” (1st singular) which requires “am”.
    The letter “h” has been a problem throughout the history of languages. The Greeks placed a hook over initial vowels and the letter RHO. If the hook bent to the right, the vowel was aspirated; i.e., hee or haw, etc.; the other way, ee or aw. The Romans had the same issue humorously illustrated in a bit of doggerel about Arrius that spoke of ‘Arry and his aitches.” Those of us who have studied French have encountered the “h” sound – or lack of it – in words like Le Havre but l’hiver, etc.
    The concept of “linking” or copula verbs probably stretches back to the original Indo-european proto-language. It certainly exists in Latin, Greek, and all the Romance languages, but also Germanic languages, and simply applies to verbs that have no action and therefore no objects of an action.
    My final comment is a question. On the subject of “you” where does “ye” fit in? Expressions like “Hear ye, hear ye” and “Come all ye faithful” clearly refer to 2nd person, singular or plural pronouns –and are not the same word “the” as in titles like “Ye Olde English Gaol.”
    I love the series and especially the knotty and often controversial issues you often raise. More delights stretch off to the horizon!!

  23. ‘Ye’ is the normal spoken second person plural form in my part of Ireland (Connacht). ‘Yeer’ is the possessive. We rarely use them when writing, maybe in fiction when quoting dialogue.
    It’s very common to hear ‘youse’ in Dublin, pronounced something like ‘you-is’.

  24. I’m kind of late to this party having just started listening in August 2023. There is a pronoun complication that is more of an issue today than it was at the time you posted this: the case of the singular they. Has this been addressed anywhere in the podcast or comments? I wonder if English will create a new pronoun at some point that will work for the individuals who chose to be a they.

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