Saturday, June 20, 2009

Subjective/Objective case-- your thoughts?

Lynn and I were just discussing what we'd get rid of if we were Language Goddesses (sigh... our fantasies are so sadly narrow), and of course, we disagreed about semicolons, but she said she'd get rid of "whom," that is, the objective case of "who" which has caused so much grief for so many.

In truth, sentence order-- where a word is in a sentence-- is far more important in English than the case of the word, which is why none of you are going to have any trouble understanding a child who says, "Me and Brody are going to the store." We know that "me," appearing at the start of the sentence before the verb, is the subject even if it's in objective case.

Interestingly, that "Me and (name)(verb)" is very common, and you'll hear adults say it too. I've said it myself, when I'm feeling really loose. (Yeah, you know, other people crash cars when they're feeling lose... I misuse grammar. I am such a wild thing. :) But you'll seldom hear:
I and Brody are going to the store.

Why is that? When we use the correct case (I), we won't put it first, but we will put the objective (wrong) case first. If you're going to use "I", you put it last-- Brody and I are going to the store.

Also less usual is:
Brody and me are going to the store.
That's something you'll hear sometimes, but not as often as Me and Brody.
I suspect this is because the ear hears "Me (verb)" as wrong and doesn't go that way.

Notice that even little kids are almost never going to say, "Me am going to the store." Why is that? I think it's probably because "I" by itself is pretty normed. It's when we add in the other person that the pronoun is distant enough from the verb not to create that dissonance (and a proper name-- Brody-- has no case).

And notice that even little kids won't go with the wrong case of the plural pronoun:
Us are going to the store.

BTW, if you're writing a story with little kids in it, be careful of the sentence mistakes you have them make. Little kids make certain mistakes ("Me and Brody") but usually not others ("Me is/am going to the store"). They don't make the same mistakes as new adult English speakers do (like ESL speakers very often drop articles or use the wrong one, and even a 4-year-old native speaker is unlikely to do that).

As one of those who prides myself on saying "whom" just when I should, I wasn't about to let Goddess Lynn do away with the distinction. (Alas, I am like Holden Caulfield's English teacher feared, just educated enough to scorn those who say "It’s a secret between he and I." And what if that distinction no longer matters, huh? Who am I-- I mean, WHOM am I to scorn?) However, boy, this subjective/objective isn't always really easy to do right, even if you try. Here's something I came across, and it's by the editor of a major political mag. Now it IS in email, and theoretically you can be looser in email. But still-- good example of how complex this can get. This is about a columnist I like who was fired by the idiots at the WaPo:
I have no insight into what prompted he and the Post to part ways.

Look at that "into" phrase at the end. There is a clause there ("what prompted" -- subject-predicate) that is the object of the preposition (the clause is the object, I mean, not "what"). So "what" (though its subjective and objective case are the same, just happens) is in the subjective case as it's the subject of the clause. (That is, if we could put "who" in there, a person not a thing doing the prompting, it would be "who" not "whom": I have no insight into WHO prompted ....) So that's important-- the clause is the object of the preposition "into", not any single word.

But then we get the end of the phrase. That is also the end of the clause (the clause that is the object of into, remember :). And it's the object of the predicate: prompted (someone). So I think "he and the Post," being in the object role, should be in objective case: him and the Post. (And I think even in an email, the editor ought to have stopped and thought about this.)

Okay, notice that what follows that is an infinitive (to-predicate), which isn't a real predicate so doesn't take subject or object. What if we put a real predicate in there, so that "he and the Post" ended up as subject of a clause? Let me see if I can come up with a substitute:
I have no insight into what prompted he and the Post to part ways..... uh....

Probably have to change "prompted" because that sort of forces a "to", and I can't think why. I do think that "to" there might actually be a preposition-part of the predicate (prompted to) rather than the start of the infinitive... hmm. Not sure. (Later... I'm pretty sure actually "to" is a preposition there, not part of an infinitive.) However, I want to eliminate "to" and I find that I can't do that without replacing the predicate, and it's funny, all the ones I came up with first, with a similar feel to "prompt" force that same "to+verb"-- urged him to... caused him to... I think all of them need the preposition "to", so that's... never mind.

So let's try a more typical transitive verb and see if that helps, and I'm actually only doing this to set up my question, my arcane question:

I have no insight into what she saw he and the Post dispute.
So..."he and the Post" are the subject of the predicate "dispute". So subjective case? That is, again, the whole clause is the object of "saw", right? Not the pronoun. So... but but but. It sounds so wrong. And if we get rid of that "and" and make it a single noun, it sounds really wrong:
I have no insight into what she saw he dispute.

Well, I don't know. I can't explain it, but by gum, that should be "him". I just know it. I can't say why. (Maybe cuz I'm wrong. :) So is he/him not the subject of that clause? Is "(pronoun) dispute" not actually a clause because "dispute" isn't actually a predicate there? Is there something elliptical there, some missing word? Is this somehow the subjunctive (it is in the present tense when it happened in the past-- a mark of subjunctive-- and is also the first-person verb form (dispute) and not the third-person (disputes) also the mark of subjunctive) and that screws everything up (the subjunctive being notorious for always screwing everything up)? I think it must be subjunctive somehow, not contrary to fact but unknown ("I have no insight").

See, I should have paid better attention in Linguistics class, but I couldn't stand that International Phonetic Alphabet junk, and so I tuned out early. I think transformational grammar would help here, but I think I skipped that class. What do you all think?

All I can say is, maybe Lynn's right. Maybe we should get rid of this distinction and just go with what feels right. But that way, that way, lies anarchy! And I know Lynn is against that!



Laura K. Curtis said...

I really, really hate "whom" because so many people get it wrong. Generally, I think it's one of those things that if you have even the slightest, tiniest hint of doubt, you should go with "who."

>>Well, I don't know. I can't explain it, but by gum, that should be "him". I just know it. I can't say why.<<

Yeah. I think it has to do with the way we read. If I am reading along and I read "she saw," I expect an object to follow. If you give me "he" instead of "him" at that point, I am going it. On the other hand, if you give me the Post first, it can function as either subject or object, so I will be less likely to complain.

So now we have "I have no insight into what she saw the Post and he dispute." Which doesn't sound as bad to me (aside from the awkwardness), because "he" is absolutely the subject of "dispute", and proximity gives it the sound of rectitude, while the Post doesn't give away its subjective or objective nature.

Which doesn't answer your question.

Anonymous said...

I hear all those moms saying "Brody and I, dear. Brody and I."

But I think there's a place for "Brody and me."
Mom asks: "Where are you going, dear?"
Kid responds: "Brody and me are going to store."

The interpretation is, "I'm going to the store, Mom, but don't worry. Brody's going with me."

Thanks for the great post!

MitMoi said...

I'm SOOO glad you enjoy delving into this rule. And I can tell you no matter how long I write - and no matter how much I want to learn and grow, I will never, ever succeed in unraveling this mystery.

Unflatteringly, I will never care. I never get "He and I/me" right. Yet somehow I am understood. Those who understand the rules might be looking down their noses - but still - they understand what I say.

I have no insight into what prompted he and the Post to part ways.

Perhaps it's not grammarically correct but I understand what's been written. Someone no longer works at the Post.

Why does it have to be so complicated and arcane?
< /frustrated non- English major/non-grammarian rant >

Edittorrent said...

MitMoi, communication is all. And as you say, the listener knows what it means. (That doesn't mean the editor won't fix it, but so what?)
I think it has to be complex and arcane so I can spend ALL AFTERNOON puzzling over it. Some people do crosswords. I puzzle over arcane grammar problems!
But you know, if none of us can really prove the "right" answer, it might just taking getting to that point and then decide that whatever we decide, having gotten that far in thinking, is right.

Anon, I'm thinking we should listen to the rhythms and purposes of real speech-- not for narrative, maybe, but for dialogue. You give a good example of why "Brody and me" will work-- when "me" has a particular purpose in saying it that way, to convince Mom that Brody will keep him safe.

Brody is T's nephew, btw, and the eldest, so he's the one who probably is supposed to be hyper-responsible!

Anonymous said...

I have no insight into what prompted he and the Post to part ways.

This is my favorite kind of puzzle, so I took a few hours to do some research.

The verb "prompt" takes an object and an infinitive:

I prompted him to leave.

In traditional grammar, this construction is called accusative with infinitive. Here's the Wikipedia address with further links to transformational grammar.

The same applies to your variation with "see": I saw him leave.
"See" takes a "bare" infinitive without the "to".

It's funny, though, that it becomes a lot more difficult with a compound object "him and the Post". I guess we don't have insight into this because it was between he and the Post. ;)

Jue Lee said...


I think in order to get this right, you have to go back to the context of the sentence.

I have no insight into what prompted he and the Post to part ways.

This is probably in response the the question: What prompted them to part ways?

By combining the two entities into one pronoun, we can see that "them" is the object of prompted and "to part ways" is a prep. phrase.

I have no insight into (repeat the question that prompted this sentence) what prompted them to part ways.

So, changing "them" back to two entities, it's clear it should be "him" not "he".

I have no insight into what prompted him and the Post to part ways.

Before I wrote this, both "he" and "him" looked wrong. Now "him" looks solidly correct.

-- Jue Lee