Sunday, July 25, 2010

Questions on the Case of Pronouns

My simple trick for handling pronoun cases in compounds led to a couple of questions. I am nowhere near my shelf full of reference books, so this is off the top of my head. Anyone with other opinions or approaches is welcome to speak up in the comments.

Jami asks,

I'll tell you the one that always trips me up. "It is he/she/I/they." I'm not sure what that form is called. I used to know it, but then it promptly fell out of my head.

An easy explanation for that type of construction? Why should it be 'Woe is I' and not 'Woe is me'?

It's not, "Woe is I." The correct usage would be, "Woe is me."

Here's why. Nominative pronouns (I/he/she/they) are the ones that are used as subjects.
I am
he is
she is
it is
they are

Objective pronouns (me/him/her/them) are the ones that are used as objects. (Get it? Objective = objects.) For example, objects of prepositions:
for me
for him
for her
for them

But also as direct objects.
He loves me.
He loves her.
He loves him.
He loves them.

So far, so good? We do most of this intuitively without ever pondering pronoun cases.

"Woe is me" and similar constructions can generate a little confusion because of an old-fashioned sentence structure, little used today, in which the sentence order is reversed. Instead of SVO, it would be OVS:
I am woe
Woe am I.

Other predicate material continues to follow the reversed OVS:
Grieved am I to learn of your misfortunes.
Happy are they who dwell in the house of the Lord.

How do you know if it's SVO or OVS? Check the verb.

I am woe/ Woe am I.
Woe is me.

When woe is the subject, it takes the third person singular conjugation of the verb of being.

Thomas raises a similar question:

She was born about the same time as me...

Or should that be ...the same time as I?

You thought we were getting all academicky and jargonish with our objective and nominative pronouns? Heh. Here we go now. That right there is what we might call an elliptical adverbial complex sentence.

The adverb "as" is a big troublemaker. For some years now, there's been a rumor going around writerland that we should all cut the word "as" from our sentences. I'm convinced that rumor was started by some poor copy editor who was tired of pulling her hair out over this frequently botched adverb and declared a moratorium on its use. She has my sincere sympathy.

You've used it correctly here to describe a time of an occurrence. So we're good so far. To understand this, let's start by restoring the ellipsis.

She was born about the same time as I (was born).

Now that we have the verb in place, we can see that we need the nominative pronoun. We wouldn't say,

She was born about the same time as me (was born).

The confusion on this probably stems from like/as confusion -- the very same confusion that led some frustrated, bald copy editor to issue her injunction.

Like is a preposition which takes an object, meaning that the pronoun would be in the objective case.

Like me, she was born at City Hospital.


Like I, she was born at City Hospital.

You know I have a cheater's trick for this, too, right? If you don't know whether to use like or as, try substituting when and see what happens.

She was born about the same time when I was born.

Makes a heck of a lot more sense than,

When I, she was born at City Hospital.

It's not a perfect trick, but it will work most of the time.



Jami Gold said...

Uh-oh, I feel a headache coming on. Wasn't the whole point of the title of the grammar book "Woe is I" (Amazon link: saying that "Woe is me" is wrong? :)

Hmm, maybe I didn't do a good job of asking my question. In school, the textbooks teach that the proper answer to a question like "Who was at the door?" is "It was I/he/she/they." Are the textbooks right or wrong? :)

This sounds wrong to me, but maybe this is similar to Thomas's example of the missing words. If I complete the sentence, it sounds better but still not great: "It was I at the door." Is that how I should check it to make sure which form to use? (Sorry, I'm obviously thinking and rationalizing why the "correct" answer is correct while I'm typing.)

Is there a specific name for this type of sentence construction? In the textbooks, it almost always seems to be an "It is/was..." type answer to a question. Are there other common circumstances to watch out for this?

Or am I confused beyond help? :)

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Jami, the predicative nominative in its archaic form required "I" instead of "me" after verbs of being. That's no longer considered good usage. "Woe is me" is correct. "Woe is I" is archaic.

However, the predicative nominative still requires he/she/they after verbs of being in *formal* usages only for third person conjugations.

So, in academic writing,

It was he at the door.

In most manuscripts,

It was him at the door.

It's just an extra fun way to complicate the SVO-OVS switchup.


Edittorrent said...

For the record, from my 1982 version of Warriner's, p. 107:

Usage Note: It is now perfectly acceptable to use me as a predicate nominative in informal usage. (The construction rarely comes up in formal usages.) The plural form (it's us) is also generally accepted.

So, as of nearly 30 years ago, this had already fallen out of standard usage. I can't find anything to contradict that in any more contemporary books.


Jami Gold said...

Theresa said: It's just an extra fun way to complicate the SVO-OVS switchup.

Oh, yeah, loads of fun. LOL!

Thanks, Theresa, that made sense. (It's always good to know that you're not completely wrong about something.) I just wonder why schools are still teaching the old way (and this was in elementary grades). It must still be on standardized testing or something.

Jami G.

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Leona said...

I think that usage and correct are not always the same. Also, you need to look at the time period of your MS. Theresa keeps using "archaic" and says as of "30 years ago" so I think time and place has something to do with the correct usage.

Americans tend to be less formal, even in their formal speech than our English speaking counterparts across the ocean.

I find myself in a quandry when I write sometimes, because, as I grew up, I read heavily the works of writers like CS Lewis, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Nagio Marsh, etc. I still read European authors like Dick Francis.

One might ask why that would put one in a quandry. However, I hopefully have answered that question in my lead in statement. I find myself wanting to use "one" in place of you and, in fact, prefer it. There are other places I prefer it as well, but one as a pronoun is the one (hehe) that gets me in to trouble.

From my writing style, one might concur that I grew up in England, except that one would find more American colloquialisms than English. So, what is one to think then?

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