Monday, April 22, 2013

GrammatiCats: Subject and Object Pronouns

All right, you punks - pull up your pants, get off my lawn, and listen up good.  Let me tell you a story.

See, back in the good old days - you know, back when children respected their parents - the linguistic light of the Western world was Latin.  And the cool thing about Latin was that you could arrange the words in your sentence almost any way you wanted, because the ending of each word told you its function

For example --

Puer puellam amat.
Puellam amat puer.
Puer amat puellam.

--all mean "The boy loves the girl."  No matter how you arrange the words, the "-am" ending in "puellam" says that the girl is the one who is loved, while "puer" (with no ending) says that the boy is the one who loves.  (If the girl loved the boy, it'd be "Puella puerum amat.")

The same is true for verbs:

Clamo, clamatis, omnes clamamus pro glace lactis.
I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.

Notice how the Latin verb, clamare, changes its ending each time so that you know who's doing the screaming.  You could dump this whole sentence out on the floor, and no matter how you put the words back together, you will ALWAYS know who is doing what to whom.

Two thousand years later, what does the new "international language" called English have to say for itself?

Yeah.  Exactly.  Our words have to hold hands like kindergartners crossing the street, because Lord knows what would happen if we mixed them up.

Before I get you a drink, hit me.
I drink before you get me a hit.
You hit me before I get a drink.

See what I mean?  One jostling of the word order and it's anarchy.

But look just there: we have I and me.  They both mean the same thing, so why are we hardwired to never, ever say Get I a drink or Me hit you?

Could we still retain a glimmer of our noble Latin roots?

Is there anything about this that you don't already know?

Well, I'm throwing down a four-pinkie challenge - let's see how good you are!

Pinkie Rating: 4

The short story is that yes indeed, many of our pronouns behave like their old Latin equivalents (which is kind of hilarious, given that our pronouns basically all come from Germanic roots, not Latin.)  Essentially, the form of the pronoun tells us its function in the sentence:

You see the basic shape of things: consciously or otherwise, your brain knows to use "I" when you are the doer of the action, and "me" when you are being done unto.  (These two aren't our only pronoun cases, but they'll do for today.)

Here is a question, then: in the sentence below, is "me" correctly used?

It is!  For all his other colloquialisms, Deliverance-Cat is actually correct in saying "me" instead of "I".

This is the place where fluent English-speakers tend to run into trouble: we're pretty good with just one pronoun, but things get dicey when we combine it with a noun (such as "boys") or some other pronoun.  And a great many of us grew up getting our knuckles slapped whenever we said "my friend and me" instead of "my friend and I," so we tend to default to the latter in every instance.

So how can you know what's correct?

Easy: just test the two objects one at a time.

"Come with the boys"?  Works!
"Come with me"?  Also works!
"Come with I"?  Not so good...

By the way, this subject/object distinction is what determines whether you use who or whom.

Who is easy enough, because usually it sits in the front part of the sentence, where we're used to putting the subject anyway:

Who moved my cheese?

could just as easily be

He moved my cheese

But whom is a mind-bender, because it likewise tends to sit up front.

To whom it may concern

So you kind of have to mentally rearrange it:

It may concern him

Remember this guy?

This rule is how you know that Phone-Cat is correct: We'd say he keeps texting you, so it should be who keeps texting you.

So there you go.  Next time you're at your school or office and you see some sign about Whomever is the last to leave needs to turn off the lights or To the person whom left their coffee cup in the sink...  Well, I'm of the opinion that it doesn't do much good to correct the error if you're not also illuminating the rule behind it.  But YOU know the rule, and I encourage you to share it liberally!

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1. Shelter kitty, courtesy of Dr. C
2. The Breaux Bridge Kitty Committee, courtesy of the Dude  (If y'all get the chance to go swamp-touring in Louisiana, book it with Cajun Country Swamp Tours.  Anybody will take your money and run you around in a boat, but not many love the land and its creatures like he does.)
3. Moses, courtesy of Gary!

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. The knuckle-slapping has me so paranoid that I always have to think about I/me, and even then it doesn't sound right half the time. So I say it the other way, too, just to be sure. Nothing like awkward grammar-stammering!

    Jenny at Choice City Native

    1. I KNOW, right - it is *amazing* how hard those habits are to shake! (I like your approach, though: just double up and make sure you cover all your bases. Works pretty well in giving compliments, too!)

  2. I think I still might be confused. Just not as much anymore. ^^;;

    1. Haha, well, I'm glad we're moving in the right direction, anyway! (And you know, I think the virtual sweatdrop might be the best use anyone has yet devised for the semicolon. ACE.)

    2. Agreed. Whoever figured that one out is a genius.

  3. Bah! Who/Whom and their placement is very confusing to me, even after this lol It is like the Matrix and this lesson was being exposed to the "real" world... and I am ready to be jacked back into the computer :-) screw saving the world!

    1. Haha, what, are you saying you're gonna be like Cypher, now? Sell out the rest of us in exchange for having a mind-wipe so you can enjoy your fake Matrix-steak without having to think about "who" and "whom"? FOR SHAME, SIR! FOR SHAME!

    2. Muhahaha! I would make sure to implant some kick ass baddassery programs in the deal!