Monday, April 17, 2006

Subject vs. Object

I hate it--I really hate it--when people can't tell the difference between a subject and an object.

In grammar, a subject acts, and an object is acted upon; in English, we have different pronouns to signify the distinction between those grammatical categories. In other words, "I" is a subject while "me" is an object while "my" shows possession; "we" is a subject while "us" is an object and "our" shows possession. This shifting of pronouns (and nouns) depending on the slot the word fills in a sentence is called declension. (Not all languages bother with all these distinctions. Chinese, for example, does not decline its pronouns in this way: the singular personal pronoun, transcribed as "wo," is always "wo," whether it's a subject or an object; to make the personal pronoun plural, you add a uniform ending to "wo" and have "a bunch of I's," or "we." It makes Chinese grammar very easy to master. What makes Chinese hard to learn is its intricate, elaborate writing system and the fact that it is a tonal language--tones can be very hard for a Westerner to distinguish, memorize and pronounce correctly.)

Very small children often have a problem with the concept of declining pronouns--hence a toddler might see a cookie and declare, "Me want that!" Older people, however, often manage to master the idea--up to a point. People want to sound smart, and they've been told that it sounds smarter to say "he and I" than "him and me"–and certainly that is true if we're talking about subjects: if you informed your listener that "Him and me went to the movie," you'd sound like an illiterate yokel who couldn't find the exit sign after the film. So some people have fallen into the habit of ALWAYS saying "he and I," even though there are times when the phrase "him and me"is exactly what is needed.

Example: "Mom bought an ice cream cone for he and I."

Well!

You wouldn't say, "Mom bought an ice cream cone for I."
You wouldn't say, "Mom bought an ice cream cone for he."

You would say, "Mom bought an ice cream cone for me."
You would say, "Mom bought an ice cream cone for him."

Thus you would say, "Mom bought an ice cream cone for him and me."

The worst violation of this rule was committed by a friend of mine who, when discussing problems in her relationship with her boyfriend, would say, "I'm really worried about Mike and I's relationship."

That's right: Mike and I's relationship. Hearing that made me feel like my brain was a pat of hard, crumbling butter being scraped over burnt toast with a bent knife. In other words, it grated. I'd correct her as gently as a I could--she was, after all, an English major, an aspiring poet who claimed to love nothing in the world (not even Mike) as much as she loved words. Her grotesque abuse of certain words was not the reason we stopped being friends, but I admit that after our falling out, I took comfort in the fact that I'd never have to hear about "Mike and she's relationship" ever again.

17 Comments:

Blogger Dale said...

I loves me some good learnin. And I think everyone should be forced to read your lesson until they understand it. Now watch, I'll say something stupid. Something else stupid.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Bored Dominatrix said...

I'm glad you found it useful, Dale. And I wish I could somehow force my students to understand this distinction--it's partly out of frustration with the fact that some of them just refuse to get it that I posted this diatribe here, in the hopes of saving some other poor sap from having to explain this a million and five times instead of just a million.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Dale said...

And please, feel free to correct me if I hurt the language at any time. I was going to say something about how I get so much out of correcting others that it's nice to give up the control but that would have been trite.

11:07 PM  
Blogger JJ said...

I think I'm falling in love...

One of my supreme dislikes is the use of "then" for "than". He's better then him.

I finally came to understand English grammar, oddly enough, when I was learning Russian.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Bored Dominatrix said...

Hey JJ--learning French helped me with English grammar. Having to understand the difference between qui and que finally taught me the difference between who and whom.

by the way, I LOVE your photo.

10:36 AM  
Blogger JJ said...

Thanks, Dom, I took that photo myself using a digital camera, a mirror... and a time machine.

11:14 AM  
Anonymous sixtyforty said...

I found your post while searching for a little lesson on subject vs. object pronouns for a coworker (she refuses to take my word for any grammar situation, even though I'm the company editor).

I think we had the same friend! I had a college buddy (who ended up marrying a guy named Mike) who would constantly use the "and I's" construction, and it drove me batty. I would gently correct her frequently, and she would always screw her face up, say that didn't sound right, and then keep using "and I's". I wanted to crawl under a rock when she posted that in an update on a class project we were working on! I told her I didn't want my name anywhere on that if she wasn't going to fix that error.

12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for clarifying that.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm pondering a question regarding the subject and the object, but in a different context. Carl Jung has said that introvert sees value in the subject while extroverts find it in the object. Any thoughts?

4:42 PM  
Blogger bluestocking said...

I'm pondering a question regarding the subject and the object, but in a different context. Carl Jung has said that introvert sees value in the subject while extroverts find it in the object. Any thoughts?

Sorry, I'm not that familiar with Jung. I guess my best response would be something borrowing from Martin Buber, the idea that you have to recognize everything else as a subject. But I don't know if that gets to the point you're asking about.

5:54 PM  
Blogger Bosanquet said...

I must come to the defence of the friend who said "I'm really worried about Mike and I's relationship."

If we take "Mike & I" to be a collective noun, then this sentence is perfectly acceptable.

And is certainly preferable to: the ambiguous (and tongue-tying) "I'm worried about Mike's and my relationship." (Is she talking about two separate relationships?); the clumsy "I'm worried about me and mike's relationship." (Is she worried about herself and the separate thing that is "Mike's relationship"?); and the cumbersome "I'm worried about the relationship between mike and me."

Of course, she might say instead: "I'm worried about my relationship with Mike." But does this not ignore Mike's relationship with her too?

No doubt, she considers her relationship with Mike to be a single entity: "Mike & I." As in: "Mike & I had dinner"; "Mike & I went to the movies"; "Mike & I fought till our neighbours had come to their fences".

To be perfectly correct, in written english, we might hyphenate – "I'm worried about Mike-and-I's relationship – or (as I would opt to do) use the ampersand – "I'm worried about Mike & I's relationship – thus suggesting a strongly connected, almost singular, pairing.

So, if I were (was?!?) your friend, I would argue that I was simply using the term "Mike & I" as a collective noun.

Language is a very complex, many-layered thing and I would argue that your friend's statement has captured a far deeper, more personal essence-of-meaning than any alternative.

I would be very interested to "hear" your response. :)

8:00 PM  
Blogger bluestocking said...

'If we take "Mike & I" to be a collective noun, then this sentence is perfectly acceptable.'

Certainly I can recognize the logic my friend employed to construct her statement--she was indeed deploying a collection noun. However, in forming and deploying that collective noun, she ignored important elements of its constituent parts, in ways that rendered it anything but "perfectly acceptable."

'No doubt, she considers her relationship with Mike to be a single entity'

Really? No doubt? I've never thought of any relationship I've had with anyone in my entire life as a "single entity." I don't think I know anyone who considers even their marriage "a single entity." I mean, I realize that was what the law of coverture provided for, but it's not how most people I know actually experience their relationships.

'I would argue that your friend's statement has captured a far deeper, more personal essence-of-meaning than any alternative.'

How about, "I'm worried about things with Mike" or "I'm worried about things between me and Mike" or "Mike and I--things are awful since his ex-girlfriend started calling him again. I'm really worried about our relationship."

All of those capture a "personal essence of meaning."

Plus, none of them sound like shit, the way any sentence that ends with "I's relationship" inevitably does.

All it takes is a little creativity, a little attention to what sounds right, and a bit of care in choosing how you start a sentence, all of which are things a poet (and that's what she wanted to be) should be able to muster.

8:59 PM  
Anonymous TeakLipstickFiend said...

You is scary. But me likes.

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which is correct?
1. People such as them and Joe...
2. People such as they and Joe...
Please advise.
Thank you,
John

10:08 PM  
Blogger bluestocking said...

Which is correct?
1. People such as them and Joe...
2. People such as they and Joe...
Please advise.


depends on how it's used. If it's a subject, it should be, "People such as they and Joe should not throw stones." If it's an object, it should be, "I don't know why we can't include people such as them and Joe."

5:43 AM  
Blogger Bosanquet said...

Them & Joe.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Fletcher said...

Much appreciated. This is very important when trying to figure out the distinction between "who" and "whom"; the former is used as the subject of a verb and the latter is used as the object of a preposition. At least, that's how I understand it.

12:48 AM  

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