Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Being objective

Did you see what I did there? Yep, fell asleep for a few years.

Anything change while I was gone? Are people still getting simple stuff wrong? Not much, then.

I've been having a very long and drawn out discussion over the past few days with a fellow twitter user over that old chestnut debate over whether to use "my friends and me" or "my friends and I".

English teachers (who all have the best intentions, I'm sure, bless) drill it into us at a young age that, when we're talking about ourselves in the company of others, we should always use "My friends/wife/mum/bridge team/uncle Bob/therapist and I".

It seems only right, of course. When we're going through a door, it's polite to let other people through first.

But there are two issues at play here: etiquette and grammar; and I think some users of English are prioritising the former over the latter.

Yes folks, time for a basic lesson in pronouns.

For this lesson, let's use the following sentence as a model.

Barry gives flowers to his girlfriend.

In this sentence, Barry is the subject; flowers is the direct object; and his girlfriend is the indirect object.

Barry is the subject of the sentence because he's what the sentence is about. We conjugate the verb to agree in number and gender (which isn't a big deal in English so forget I mentioned it) to agree with the subject. So in this instance we say gives instead of give. (I orginally had this sentence in the past tense but had to change it to illustrate this point as the past participle agrees with all subjects, regardless of number. (Ignore this parenthetical remark if you don't know what a past participle is; I'm trying to eliminate confusion, not cause more.))

Flowers is the direct object because this is what the verb gets done to. The verb is 'to give'. What gets given? Flowers. Clear? Good.

His [Barry's] girlfriend is the indirect object because the verb doesn't happen directly to her but she is indirectly involved. The indirect object will always have a preposition before it. In this case, to, and a preposition (as we all know) is a word which is placed before a noun to denote a syntactic or grammatical relationship between that noun and its antecedent (the thing that comes before it).

I'm thinking around now that I should have given Barry a nicer name, like Heath or something. Sorry Barry. And sorry Barry's girlfriend too.

Pronouns come in two varieties: subjective and objective. Subjective pronouns are used to replace the subject of a sentence.

He gives flowers to his girlfriend.

Now, because our objects come in two forms, so do our object pronouns. Sure, they're the same set of words, but depending what role they play in a sentence, they can be either direct-object pronouns or indirect-object pronouns. They replace the direct object and indirect object respectively.

Barry gives them to her.

Them is the direct-object pronoun, replacing flowers; her is the indirect-object pronoun, replacing his girlfriend, who I have decided to name Scarlett.

Scarlett is lucky to get flowers. But I guess this is compensation for having a boyfriend named Barry.

Now, onto the case in point, where we have multiple people playing the part of either subject or object. Or, indeed, both.

If I'm set to go out with Barry and Scarlett for a few drinks, I might say:

My friends and I are going to the pub.

In this example my friends and I is the subject of the sentence. It could be replaced by the pronoun we and still agree with the verb. If I said 'Barry and I are going to the pub', I'd still have to use the verb are because if it were just Barry going to the pub, it would be Barry is and if it were just me, it would be I am.

That's the grammar of it. Etiquette and English teachers dictate that we put our friends first, which most of us do. The construction I and my friends are going to the pub is obviously not as common and sounds a little strange, however it is really no less gramatically correct. The pronoun I is a subjective pronoun. Other subjective pronouns are you, he, she, we, they.

But what happens when my friends and I are not the subject..

Heath bought a round of drinks for my friends and me.

Heath is now the subject of the sentence. He's also a great guy and I think Scarlett is a little jealous that he's the gregarious, drink-buying type. Barry's not impressed.

Now, Heath bought drinks for all of us, and now that we're all indirect objects, any of the following could be true (and gramatically correct):

Heath bought a drink for me

Heath bought drinks for them

Heath bought drinks for my friends

Heath bought a round of drinks for all of us

Heath must be loaded.

The point being is that we're now looking at object pronouns, namely me, you, him, her, us, them, it.

The litmus test as to which pronoun to use when multiple subjects exist, is to take out one or the other and see if the sentence still makes sense. If the sentence reads:

Heath and me are cool

If we take out Heath, it just reads Me are cool. Of course you would conjugate the verb properly and it would read me is cool, which, while true, is bad grammar.

Another bad example (the one most people get wrong):

The waitress just said hi to Heath and I

Again, if we take Heath out of the equation, it becomes The waitress just said hi to I, which is also a bit ugly. And wrong.

Etiquette may come into play with multiple indirect objects. Compare:

She just bought drinks for my friends and me


She just bought drinks for me and my friends

One of these constructions may be impolite. I wouldn't know; I'm not an expert in the finer points of etiquette but neither phrasing is gramatically incorrect.

Scarlett just left with Heath.

The waitress and I are getting along well.

Barry is forlorn and is considering changing his name by deed poll.


Rebecca Freeborn said...

Wow, that just gave me a grammargasm. I admire your commitment...I just bitch and moan over how hopeless everyone is and rarely bother to do anything about it.

Drew said...

The word 'grammargasm' just gave me a grammargasm.

Love your work.

sa.myrrh said...


Well I've always wondered, why don't we use an apostrophe after plural words like "men", "women" or such?
We always say "men's", but why not "men's", since its plural?

Love your blog! =D

jasmine thakkar said...

LOL... this is just lovely and so funny too..

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