Grammar Wednesday

Another wonderful email from CaliforniaTeacherGuy**

My Dear Mrs. Chili,

There’s something about these sentences (written by edubloggers) that sounds “off” to me:

And their teacher, who is only about fifteen years older than them, can vividly remember getting her first Apple IIc and Apple IIe.

It was clear quickly that his problems were bigger than me.

I remember one exchange where she said that he was bigger than her and she couldn’t make him do anything.

Help me to hear euphony once again, please.

Always grateful for your help,

CaliforniaTeacherGuy

This calls for a lesson in pronoun cases!

Pronouns have three qualities – case, number, and gender – and these three qualities have different “categories.” Cases can be subjective, objective, and possessive (the three “ives”). Number can be singular or plural. Gender can be masculine, feminine, or neutral (or, as some people say, neuter).

Subjective pronouns function as the subject of sentences. Subjective pronouns are I, you, he/she/it, we, you, and they:

He ate too much ice cream and ended up with a headache.

They bought the tickets, but missed the plane.

I knew how the story ended, but I didn’t give it away.

Objective pronouns function as – here it comes – the object in sentences. They can be direct objects or objects of a preposition, but they don’t function as subjects. Objective pronouns are me, you, him/her/it, us, you, them:

Give me the chocolate and no one gets hurt.

If you knew him better, maybe you wouldn’t be so surprised.

All the blame rests with them – we had nothing to do with it.

Possessive pronouns (and possessive adjectives) express ownership. They are my/mine, your/yours, his/hers/its, our/ ours, your/yours, their/theirs:

Your coat is wet, so don’t leave it on the back of the chair.

The cat lost its collar in a wrestling match with the dog.

They lost their voices screaming at the umpire.

There are also reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself and the like), but we’ll get into those another time.

In CTG’s examples, the sentences sound “off” because the writers chose the wrong pronoun case for the purpose. In the first example:

And their teacher, who is only about fifteen years older than them, can vividly remember getting her first Apple IIc and Apple IIe.

the problem is one that probably only English teacher types would notice. Aside from starting the sentence with “and” (you ALL know how I feel about THAT!), the writer used the third person, plural, objective pronoun them. This is an example that most English teachers would say is really a shortened clause – it’s a comparison between two things in which the second verb is left off as understood – “their teacher, who is only about fifteen years older than they (are)” It’s become pretty common in speech, however, to use the objective pronoun in these instances – I’m far more likely to hear “she’s smarter than me” or “I’m taller than him” than I am to hear the more grammatically correct “she’s smarter than I” or “I’m taller than he.”

Ditto with the second and third sentences:

It was clear quickly that his problems were bigger than me.

I remember one exchange where she said that he was bigger than her and she couldn’t make him do anything.

If we were to carry the second sentence out to its full grammatical conclusion, we’d say “It was clear quickly that his problems were bigger than I was” (though, in truth, I’d move the adjective to read “quickly MADE clear” or something like that – the sentence is not very smooth as it’s written). The same is true of the comparison in the third sentence – it would complete out to “I remember one exchange where she said that he was bigger than she was, and she couldn’t make him do anything.” Personally, I’d have edited the third sentence to read “I remember one exchange WHEN she said...” but that’s just me. Again, having the objective pronouns in this instances isn’t all that unusual and, as with most things grammatical, popular use often equates to general acceptability. Like CTG, though, these examples stop me short.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone! Keep those Grammar Wednesday questions and suggestions coming!!

**really, go on over and read what he’s been up to – his students have been making beautiful poetry, and he’s making a difference in some student lives; he’s really flourishing in the desert!

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14 Comments

Filed under Grammar

14 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Now, see, I thought that this sentence:

    It was clear quickly that his problems were bigger than me.

    Would have changed to:

    It was clear quickly that his problems were bigger than mine.

  2. In fact, I’d probably say:

    It quickly became clear that his problems were bigger than mine.

  3. I hate it when people correct my pronoun usage, because I am very conscious about trying to use them correctly. “I am smarter than they.” 😉

    Oh. I have a question. On TV, the sports announcer said, “They aren’t playing that right.” In my mind, I have to change the word “right” to “correctly,” because I find it irritating. Is it good, bad or just ugly?

  4. OK not to pat myself on the back (but I totally am) but I recognized the problem in that first sentence and I knew how to correct it and I don’t teach English! 🙂

  5. Michael, I guess I automatically assumed that *I* was one of his problems!!

    Heh…

    Eh, Seester – I tend to agree with you, but I’m not that much of a stickler that I’ll correct people for that. “Right” does mean “correct” in one of its definitions. I’LL say “correctly” but I won’t correct someone who says “right.”

    Kizz, you’re very grammatically smart, even if you don’t think you are… (*pat, pat*)

  6. “than” has been used as a preposition, and so followed by an object pronoun, since at least Shakespeare. Of course it is also used as a conjunction and followed by a clause. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (http://www.bartleby.com/68/81/5981.html):

    Than is both a subordinating conjunction, as in She is wiser than I am, and a preposition, as in She is wiser than me… Some commentators believe that the conjunction is currently more frequent than the preposition, but both are unquestionably Standard.

  7. I caught the first sentence immediately. I think that if the second sentence had been written with the word just in front of me, I would accept it that way, and I think it sounds better.

    It was clear quickly that his problems were bigger than just me.

    Even changing it to I still doesn’t read well to me. It just needs something more, imho.

  8. jamie

    Mrs. Chili,
    I have a grammar question for you. Is it best to post my question here? Feel free to e mail me your preference. Thanks so much!

  9. 1) I finally returned your email. Sorry for the delay, Job Hunt 2007 is taking up all my time.

    2) I love me some Grammar Wednesday!! What a brilliant idea we all had…way back when.

    3) How is the GSA going? When is your first meeting?

  10. I wanted to post the same as Michael. I guess you can explain the sentence in two ways. Thanks for another interesting lesson.

  11. Thank you so much, dear Chili, for your plug at the end of this post! 🙂

  12. “Than is both a subordinating conjunction, as in She is wiser than I am, and a preposition, as in She is wiser than me…”

    “Than” is used the same in both these sentences. It’s only the form of the pronoun that changes. It is probably true that many speakers are likely to label “than” as a preposition in the second sentence–but they don’t use it as one.

    Perhaps a better example could be made using the contrastive case in the following two sentences:

    1. “He can lift more than I (can)”–where he and I are competing.

    2. “He can lift more than me”–where I weigh 200 pounds and he can lift 250. (cf the same ambiguity in “That shark can eat more than me.”)

  13. michael, are you saying that it’s a conjunction in “She is wiser than me”? How does that work?

  14. michael

    Yeah that’s a little problematic. So I’ll call it an analysis rather than an answer.

    It’s based on the pattern of alternating forms in the 1st person singular pronoun–which can take the objective “me” form even when not following a transitive verb or a prepositon.

    I suggest that the I/me alternation is triggered by various environments–so that it’s not necessary to analyse “than” as a preposition just because the objective case follows it.

    Now Kenneth G. Wilson apparently disagrees.
    http://www.bartelby.com/68/81/5981.html

    And Mark Liberman says more
    here:
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001061.html

    and here:
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001650.html

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