A Quick Review of Case and Person

Most of us would agree, I’m sure, that the sentence Me and him saw them yesterday does not conform to the rules of standard English grammar. We can be quick to dismiss such errors, but the instructive question for us in instances like this is why. That simple six-word statement illustrates two features of pronouns which figure into sentences we commonly speak and write every day.

Let’s approach our illustration scientifically and begin by dividing it into subject and predicate. The subject is what we’re talking about, and the predicate is what we’re saying about the subject. The subject here, or what is called more properly the subject phrase, is compound: two people, me and him, were involved in the action of the verb saw. They are what grammar calls the agents of the verb because they acted. And when the subject of a clause is also an agent, we know that the verb is in the active voice: nothing happened to them, but they did something to other people, namely, saw them.

That quick grammatical framing out of the sentence brings us closer now to understanding where the mistakes in it lie. The words me and him are pronouns, and pronouns in English exhibit something called case. The case of a pronoun refers to the way the word is spelled (its form) or where it is placed (its position) in a clause, which tell the reader how the word is being used grammatically at the moment. There are three cases in English: nominative, possessive, and objective, and each case has a number of rules associated with it. The subject of a clause in standard English is put in the nominative case, and so that is what we should be expecting in our example.

Grammar books are not to be taken to the beach, but they do have their place on a shelf for quick reference from time to time. And if we turned to one now, we would be told that the three cases for the pronoun me are I, my, me, and for the pronoun him are he, his, him. With that information, we can quickly see the first problem in our example. The writer (or speaker) chose the objective case instead of the nominative, breaking or violating or simply not conforming to the standard rule that the subject of a clause is put in the nominative case. Our first correction, then, is simply I and he saw them yesterday.

But even with that revision, our ear might rightly alert us (and that is the correct but limited role of the ear in grammar, merely to alert but not to correct) that all is still not well. I and he or he and I? In addition to case, pronouns have something called person. There are in standard English three grammatical persons: first, which refers to the person speaking; second, referring to the person spoken to; and third, referring to the person spoken about. And for each of these, there is a singular and plural form. The pronoun I, then, is first person singular, and the pronoun he is third person singular.

We noted earlier that the subject of our example, I and he, constitutes a compound subject phrase, and that necessarily entails the question of order. For the question of order, there is, of course, yet another rule, which we can remember better numerically: 2, 3, 1. When we refer to more than one pronoun, whether in a compound subject as illustrated in our example or in any other kind of phrase, the second person pronoun precedes the third, and either or both precede the first. And so because he is third person and I is first person, we should order them he and I.

Case and person are two properties of pronouns (and nouns as well), and they figure into many, if not almost all, the sentences we write and speak regularly. We think in linguistic patterns, and the rules of case and person are meant to establish norms to quicken the pace at which we think through thoughts which need no special attention—the better to preserve our mental energy for those thoughts that do.


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