Let’s ask grammatically what sounds at first like a profound philosophical question: What does it mean to say I? We all use the word I a thousand times a day, and each day another thousand times we use the two words associated with it: my and me. So what’s the different between I and me and my and me and I—grammatically?
The three words I, my, me all refer to the same entity. Take your index finger and point it at yourself, and that’s I, my, me. That entity, of course, has another name, one you are equally well familiar with, and it is represented by what is called a proper noun, the word proper meaning in Latin what is (for all intents and purposes) one’s own. (It is the same proper as in the word property.) The trio I, my, me stand in for your proper name from time to time, and that function of standing for a noun is what marks the three words as pronouns. A pronoun is a word that stands pro a noun, on behalf of a noun. Without pronouns, we would defeat one another with repetition and monotony.
English grammar recognizes a number of different kinds of pronouns, but I, my, me are part of the class called personal pronouns, obviously enough because they refer to persons, including things. Language begins by naming the persons and things we perceive around us. To name something directly we employ a noun (the word noun is derived, in fact, from the Latin for a name, nomen), and to name something indirectly we employ a pronoun. Either way, it is important to see that we are isolating something from our otherwise unified experience in order to put it in relation to something else, which we do by means of a verb. To say that I watched a squirrel climb up a tree, there must be an I, a squirrel, and a tree, all connected by watching and climbing. Quite a laborious thing language, when you stop to think about it: name every last thing you perceive so you can say something about it. Little wonder the religions say the divine was involved.
There are six personal pronouns in English, and here’s where a little geometry comes to bear. We humans, the standing-up-on-our-two-feet animals, can take our position on a vertical line: I, my, me if we are referring to one of us, we, our, us, if we are referring to many of us together. Transform that vertical line into a horizontal one that points to someone in front of you, and you have the personal pronouns you, your, you, whether you are speaking to one person or many. And finally, push that projecting line off to your left or right, and you have he, his, him; she, her, her; it, its, it; and they, their, them. Because who is off to our side is not quite as obvious as who is in front of us or who we are ourselves (again grammatically, not philosophically), this last group of personal pronouns has many more forms to make the referent clear.
These three axes, vertical, horizontal, and lateral, together form a linguistic gyroscope of sorts to name indirectly the persons and things we encounter in space, both literal and figurative. The traditional presentation that classifies all these forms of the personal pronouns is called the person and number chart; the term person refers to grammatical person (first, second, or third), and number refers to singular or plural.
Such are the personal pronouns in modern English. Now just why we have 24 forms where perhaps six would do is a matter best left in detail for another time. The answer involves what is called case, the form (spelling) or position of a word that indicates its grammatical function in a sentence. Each case has certain grammatical functions associated with it, which we can see in evidence when we wonder whether we should say between you and I or between you and me, or whether it’s its or it’s. Standard English has its ways, which are often less mysterious upon a little study than we have come to believe.
What is most important to remember about the pronouns, personal or otherwise, is that they are always referring to something indirectly. That which a pronoun refers to is called its antecedent, and if the antecedent is not clear—if the correct pronoun is not chosen or if the right pronoun is placed too far from its antecedent—confusion results. And when the truth is involved, it is never in anyone’s interest, including our own, to be confused.
If you would like to learn more about the personal pronouns, how to use them and some errors to avoid, please join us tonight for Writing Smartly’s Tuesday Evening Grammar at 6:30 CT. You may enroll now through this registration link. Tuition is $25.