Of the following eight sentences, which contain grammatically possible uses of English pronouns?
- My husband and I went to the movies.
- Me and my husband went to the movies.
- Send the package to my husband and me.
- Send the package to my husband and I.
- The woman is she.
- The woman is her.
- His mother disapproves of his studying art.
- His mother disapproves of him studying art.
Many readers will undoubtedly proclaim that only sentences one, three, five, and seven are grammatically correct. “Why?” I will ask, to which I will receive the answer, “Because only subject pronouns can be subjects and only object pronouns can be objects.” At this point, I will shake my head and laugh in sadness for those poor English speakers who have bought into the prescriptive rules of the mythological Standard English. (All eight are grammatically possible, by the way.)
Old English and Grammatical Case
Similar to Modern German in which all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and determiners take inflections to indicate grammatical case, English also once had an extensive case system. Unlike Modern English in which word order determines the functions of nouns—the boy kicked the girl and the girl kicked the boy clearly have different meanings because of syntax—word order of Old English was much less rigid because of inflections that indicated grammatical case. In Modern English, however, the grammatical functions of nouns can only be determined by examining the order of words within a sentence.
For example, the noun phrase the chicken is just a noun phrase without any function outside the context of a sentence. However, if the noun phrase the chicken is placed into one of the following sentences, a wolf ate the chicken or the chicken ate a wolf, the noun phrase gains a grammatical function as either the direct object or the subject. Depending on the order of words, the meanings of the two sentences are drastically different. Either a large canine consumed the feathered animal, or the feathered animal (albeit amazingly) consumed a large canine. In Old English, word order was not as important to the central meaning of such as sentence because the words for the chicken and a wolf would have taken inflections that signified their functions as subjects and direct objects.
Modern English and Grammatical Function
Nouns in Modern English unarguably no longer show grammatical case but instead rely on word order to determine grammatical function. The only exceptions may be pronouns including the English personal pronoun system and the English interrogative pronoun system. For example, the English language has different words for subject personal pronouns and object personal pronouns in all but the second person and the third person singular neuter. The subject pronouns I, he, she, we, they, and who are different in form from the object pronouns me, him, her, us, them, and whom. Some grammarians therefore argue that the English language still has remnants of the Old English case system in the Modern English personal pronoun system.
I, however, must argue that the English case system has long since been dead. First, two of the English personal pronouns have the same form in both the subject and the object position: you and it. The two sentences you saw it and it saw you differ greatly in meaning but contain pronouns with the exact same form regardless of grammatical function. The subject pronouns you and it are the same in spelling and pronunciation as the object pronouns you and it. The second person and third person singular neuter pronouns no longer have separate forms for nominative versus accusative or dative functions.
Most importantly, however, the eight sentences examined at the beginning of this article prove that subject pronouns are used in object positions and object pronouns are used in subject positions in the English language. Regardless of the prescriptions and proscriptions prescriptive grammarians ascribe to the English language, English speakers use both subject and object pronouns as subjects as in sentences one, two, and eight as well as both object and subject pronouns as objects as in sentences three and four. Sentences five and six are examples of the mixed use of subject and object pronouns as subject complements. Finally, sentences seven and eight are examples of how the use of possessive determiners versus personal pronouns change verb phrases to nonfinite noun clauses which also results in a slight shift in meaning.
The English Case System Is Dead
Both Friedrich Nietzsche and Time once controversially proclaimed that God is dead. I, too, somewhat controversially proclaim that the English case system is good and dead and has been so for a long time. Although prescriptivism vehemently fights for the use of subject pronouns in subject positions only and object pronouns in object positions only, actual use of the English language proves otherwise. All eight sentences are grammatically possible. The English case system is dead.
Cassidy, Frederic G. & Richard N. Ringler. 1971. Bright’s Old English grammar & reader, 3rd edn. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.