How to use personal pronouns in speech and writing
Which one of these sentences uses the correct personal pronoun?
A. Grandad read the book to Ben and I.
B. Grandad read the book to Ben and me.
C. Grandad read the book to Ben and myself.
If you answered B, congratulations, you win the virtual chocolate frog (or tasty treat of your choice). If you answered A or C, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Lots of people mix this up. In fact, it’s common to hear the wrong version – so no wonder we get confused.
In this post, I’ll offer my foolproof tips for how to get it right. But first, here’s a quick grammar refresher.
What are pronouns?
Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns in a sentence. If we didn’t have pronouns, our sentences would look something like this:
On Saturday mornings after Ben gets up Ben eats porridge for breakfast, makes Ben a cup of coffee and reads the paper delivered to Ben by Ben’s local newsagent.
Instead of this painfully repetitious prose, we can replace most of the ‘Bens’ with pronouns:
On Saturday mornings after Ben gets up he eats porridge for breakfast, makes himself a cup of coffee and reads the paper delivered to him by his local newsagent.
Ah, much better!
Pronouns can be of several different types. The ones in the above sentence are called personal pronouns. Other types include relative pronouns (who, which, that, what), demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those) and indefinite pronouns (any, each, some, many, and so on). This post focuses on personal pronouns.
Personal pronouns and case
Did you notice that the pronouns in the above sentence change form (he, himself, his, him)? Which form of a pronoun to use depends on its grammatical function in the sentence.
When referring to a male person, he is used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence or clause (‘he eats porridge’). This is called subjective case. The subjective personal pronouns are I, we, you, he, she, it and they.
Him is used when the male personal pronoun is the object of the sentence or clause (‘delivered to him’). This is called objective case. The objective personal pronouns are me, us, you, him, her, it and them. In sentences, these pronouns are often preceded by prepositions such as to, for, by, from and of.
Notice that only you and it don’t change their form between the subjective and objective cases.
His is used when the male personal pronoun is possessive (‘his local newsagent’), and this is called – you guessed it – possessive case. The other possessive personal pronouns are my/mine, our/ours, your/yours, her/hers, its and their/theirs.
Fun fact: possessive pronouns never take apostrophes.
What about himself? Well, that’s called reflexive case. Reflexive pronouns always end in ‘self’ or ‘selves’ (myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, oneself, itself, themselves).
A reflexive pronoun is only used when the subject acts upon itself (‘he made himself a cup of coffee’) or to stress that the subject acted alone (‘she did it herself’). This type of pronoun must always ‘reflect’ a noun or pronoun given earlier in the sentence.
Does this give you a hint about why option C is incorrect? It doesn’t make sense to use ‘myself’ when ‘Grandad’ is the subject because ‘Grandad’ and ‘myself’ are not the same person. In other words, the pronoun ‘myself’ in option C does not have a noun or pronoun earlier in the sentence to act or reflect upon.
Subject vs object
So we’ve eliminated option C because ‘myself’ is a reflexive pronoun, but what about options A and B? How can we decide what’s right here?
Let’s look at the structure of the sentence:
- ‘Grandad’ is the grammatical subject (he performed the action of the verb, ‘read’)
- ‘the book’ is the direct object (it received the action of the verb, ‘read’)
- ‘Ben and I’ or ‘Ben and me’ are the indirect objects (they received the action of the book being read)
So we need to use the objective case of the personal pronoun here – which means ‘Ben and me’ is correct.
Two foolproof methods for choosing me, myself or I
Okay, I hear you say, this grammatical theory about pronouns, cases, subjects and objects is all very well, but it’s pretty complicated. How am I going to remember what’s what? Is there an easier way?
I’m pleased to say that yes, there is. And not just one way but two for you to choose from.
Take away the other name in the sentence and see what makes sense:
Grandad read the book to Ben and I.
Grandad read the book to Ben and me.
Replace the two people with either we or us. If we makes sense, this means I is correct (because we and I are both subjective pronouns). If us works, this means me is correct (because us and me are both objective pronouns).
Grandad read the book to we (Ben and I).
Grandad read the book to us (Ben and me).
Test your personal pronoun knowledge
Which of the following sentences are correct? Use one or both of the methods above to work it out. Then decide which pronoun should be used in the incorrect sentences.
- For Jo and me, the result was worth the pain to get there.
- What time are you going to pick Alex and I up from the movies?
- When my brother and I went camping, we had so much fun.
- My cat Tiffy and me love sitting together on the sofa.
- Give it to Melissa and myself so we can fix it for you.
- The students and I were always accompanied by staff from the school.
- Staff from the school always accompanied the students and myself.
- Just between you and I, this test is quite hard!
Hint: Three of the sentences are correct and five are incorrect.
Let me know how you go!
Need an editor to check your pronouns or other grammar stumbling blocks? Contact me for a free quote on your next writing project.