Coordinating Your Pronouns

October 29th, 2012

The rules of grammar can sometimes confuse even the more scholarly Word Nerd!

coordinating your pronouns

Uncoordinated

This seems like a pretty simple rule, and we all know the trick to choosing the right pronoun (deleting the first part of the clause – you’d never say ‘Me went to the store’, now would you?).

However, coordinating pronouns can get a little confusing when you’re speaking and your sentences get a bit tangled and complex. Even highly-educated people can get lost in the woods of their own words. Sometimes, though, a constructions sounds wrong when it is, in fact, correct – much as the Mum and me construction sounded right to our ears as children. I remember thinking that and I always sounded a little formal, a little snobby, whereas and me sounded normal. Today, after decades of practice, it’s the opposite.

Recently, for example, I was watching an interview with Colin Powell, the former U.S. Secretary of State, in which he said of President Obama ‘I voted for him in 2008 and I plan to stick with him in 2012 and I'll be voting for he and for Vice President Joe Biden next month.’ The construction he and is strange; I would have expected him and, wouldn’t you? And yet this is not strictly incorrect. If anything, it’s an overcorrection – an overly strict adherence to coordination rules.

Case Distinctions

Part of the problem with English is that it is messy, and its evolution over time is often haphazard. Most case distinctions in English have disappeared, but they usually remain in force for pronouns. This is what causes the confusion about which pronoun is correct under certain coordinated constructions, and leads us to the occasional strange usage like he and instead of him and.

The other aspect of this confusion is in assuming that it’s the pronouns which are being treated as objects in these sentences – when in fact, if you go through the sentence you’ll likely conclude that it is the coordination as a whole that is being treated as the object, which naturally makes declining the pronouns a challenge.

English is an evolving language, though, and constructions that are incorrect or simply awkward today may quickly become standard usage tomorrow. I think we should worry less about the occasional oddity in spoken language and more about whether we’re understanding each other – which is the true goal.

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