Coincidentally, just as I sat down to write this column on pronoun case, the following message arrived from Gail:
"I have given up on trying to get people to use the word me correctly. It's anathema to most of my friends. It drives me nuts that the whole world thinks me is never correct anymore, but I've given up — totally given up."
Do you detect a note of exasperation?
Never having been one to follow reasonable advice, however, I persist. Let's begin with some definitions and end with why pronoun case matters.
As you know, nouns are words that denote persons, places, things or ideas such as teacher and commitment. Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns such as she, him and it. Pronoun form changes according to person (first, second, third), number (singular or plural), gender (male or female in traditional grammar but a spectrum as recognized by today's society) and case (subjective, objective and possessive).
Pronouns acting as subjects take the subjective case (I, you, he, she, it; we, you, they): "She wrote a brilliant proposal." Pronouns acting as objects (of verbs and prepositions) take the objective case (me, you, him, her, it; us, you, them): "The noise disturbed him." Possessive pronouns (my, your, his, her, its; our, your, their) indicate ownership or relationship: "Her report was brilliant."
Note that pronouns acting as predicate nominatives (or words referring to the subject) also take the subjective case: "It is I." Most people these days, however, say, "It's me," and this practice is generally considered acceptable.
In addition to pronouns taking different cases, reflexive pronouns are used when the object of a sentence is the same as the subject: "I hurt myself." Reflexive pronouns are identical in appearance to intensive pronouns, which function as their name suggests. They intensify a statement: "I myself make errors in pronoun case."
As Gail's message (and experience) suggests, the most common pronoun error is avoiding me when the objective case is called for, as in "Our marketing expert coached Marie and myself" and "between you and I," common errors even among well-educated speakers.
So, who cares?
Correctness, of course, depends on level of formality and context, which is determined by purpose, audience and occasion. When Paul Robeson or William Warfield sings "He don't plant taters, he don't plant cotton" from "Ol' Man River" in "Showboat," the grammatical error is appropriate to the historical context, but in a professional setting "He don't do his work on time" may prevent you from being hired or promoted. Also damaging is using me when I is called for, as in "Sally and me will attend" or worse yet "Me and her will attend."
Your credibility and professional image are at stake. So just between you and me, pronoun case matters.
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.