Correcting Pretentious Pronouns

From Nurse Author & Editor:

If pronouns following prepositions or verbs sound lofty or pretentious, they probably are. Without attention to grammar rules, nurse authors and editors can make common mistakes by selecting the wrong form of the pronoun. Pronouns following prepositions and transitive verbs should be the objective form of the pronoun, not the subjective form. These experienced editors describe the rule, suggest a quick-fix tip, and provide several practice items followed by answers.

As a writer, editor, or editorial board member responsible for how the language of the profession appears in print, nurse authors and editors must recognize and employ the proper use of pronouns following prepositions and transitive verbs. The paragraph below is littered with pronoun errors, where the “case” of the pronoun is inappropriate to its function in the sentence. This kind of error, most unfortunately, is becoming rife in common conversation and is even seeping into formal, published writing. (Bernstein, 1965.)

Common Pronoun Problem: “If you and I would make the perfect team, then why did the Director of Nursing not pick you and I to serve on the task force? It must have been because of the night nurse; people are always noticing friction between she and I.”

If you did not have your teeth painfully on edge while reading the above paragraph, please attend carefully to the tips in this article on writing or editing using correct pronouns in nursing literature. Then, try your new skills on some samples at the end of this article.

Background on the Problem

Why should this have come about? Our theory is that it is from lack of focus on grammar rules in school, which leads authors to write today more from their colloquial “ear” than from English grammar. Once upon a time, when our generation was young—let’s say, in the streets of New York—some would say, sounding tough and down-to-earth, “Me and her went to the store.”

As we grew older and diligently learned our lessons at school, we came to understand that this was not the proper way of speaking. We learned the rules of grammar described later in this article and realized that to be taken seriously in the world of adults, not to mention professional adults, we would have to say “She and I went to the store.” We understood this to be the correct way of speaking and writing.

What may have happened in later generations is that, sadly, teaching and learning the rules of grammar fell out of fashion. Without knowledge of the underlying rules, the only guideline for many may have been some vague sense in their inner ear that “she and I” was classier than “me and her.” (Bernstein, 1.)

As a result, even well-educated nurses are sometimes caught today writing something like “It was generous of the Nursing Director to invite he and I to the planning meeting,” thinking themselves the essence of correctness and gentility, when in fact the pronouns in the prepositional phrase should be “him and me.”

Did the Nursing Director really invite “he” to the meeting? No, she invited “him.” Did she invite “I” to the meeting? No, she asked “me.”

Grammar Rule

The rule for pronouns following prepositions and transitive verbs is to use the same pronouns in pairs that you would use if each pronoun were alone. Because “she invited him” and “she invited me” are correct, then the correct compound expression is “she invited him and me.”

Quick Fix

The quick-fix test to correct this mistake, which usually happens where there are two pronouns in the sentence, is to eliminate one of the pronouns and listen for what sounds correct in the singular expression. (Hodges et. al., 3.) For example, test the following sentence by trying each pronoun alone:

  • Questionable sentence: “The patient asked she and me for a medication.”
  • Singular test for the first pronoun: “The patient asked she for a medication.” It is easy to see in this singular form that the pronoun, “she” is not correct and the sentence should read “The patient asked her for a medication.”
  • Singular test for the second pronoun: ‘The patient asked me for a medication.“ This singular form is correct, so the second pronoun is correct as ”me“ in the pronoun pair.
  • Revised sentence: ‘The patient asked her and me for a medication.“

Listen for what sounds correct in the singular expression.

Subjective and Objective Pronouns

To understand the grammatical rationale behind all this, you need to remember that pronouns come in “cases” (and we don’t mean twelve to a carton). The case of a pronoun is the form it takes to show its relationship to other words in a sentence. (Burchfield, 2.) The two cases we are concerned with here, and in most nursing manuscripts, are the subjective and the objective.

Subjective Case

The subjective case is the form a pronoun takes when it is the subject of a verb: “I, you, he, she, it, we, you,” and “they.” For example, the pronouns in the examples below are used as subjects of the sentences:

  • I hung the IV.
  • She checked vital signs.
  • They told us we were doing a good job.
  • You can change the dressing.
  • It was a mistake.

Objective Case

The objective case is the form a pronoun takes when it is the object of a verb or preposition. In the sentence “I handed the forceps to the surgeon,” “forceps” is the object of the verb “handed,” and “surgeon” is the object of the preposition “to.” Substituting pronouns for the forceps and the surgeon, the sentence becomes “I handed them to her.” Both pronouns are in the objective case.

Pronouns in the objective case are “me, you, him, her, it, us, you,” and “them.” Examples of sentences with objective pronouns are:

  • The pharmacist gave the TV to me.
  • The note came from her.
  • Give the folder to them.
  • The patient asked for you.
  • Make time for it.

Notice that “you” and “it” have the same form in both subjective and objective cases. This may be a partial cause of some people’s confusion. When pronouns are the objects of verbs or of prepositions, they must be in the objective case! (Hodges et. al., 3.)

Pronouns that are the objects of verbs or prepositions must be in the objective case.

Pronouns Following Prepositions and Verbs

In your writing or editing, you need to pay particular attention to pronouns that follow verbs and prepositions, as they are likely to be functioning as objects. You cannot simply rely on the relative positions of the pronouns within the sentence (i.e., if the pronouns occur early in the sentence, it does not indicate the need for “you and I”).

This tricks some authors who write “Between you and I, the meeting was a waste of time.” Even though the pronouns occur early in the sentence, they do not perform the same grammatical function as in “You and I agree that the nurse manager is late for the meeting.”

Try It Activity

To give you some practice on this important point of grammar, determine which of the following sentences are correct and which incorrect. For those that are incorrect, make the appropriate correction. Answers with rationale follow the article.

  1. The new staffing schedule was shown to everyone except she and I.
  2. Everyone went to the site of the disaster, which left the nurse practitioner and me as the only ones staffing the Emergency Department.
  3. The competition for the last spot on the re-engineering committee came down to him and I.
  4. I paged the attending, but by the time she called back, me and my charge nurse had already started CPR.
  5. According to her and her daughter, she had missed her medications three days in a row.
  6. We really needed more than two people to lift the client, but her and I were the only staff on the floor at the time.
  7. To both Jill and I, that job on the stepdown unit seemed like a golden opportunity.
  8. Personnel called both Jill and me to interview for the position.
  9. The best person for the job is me.
  10. She and I left the hospital after our shift was completed.
  11. The nursing textbook is being written by she and I.
  12. The pink scrubs are only worn by him and her.
  13. If me and her wanted to become registered nurses, we could attend a hospital-based, junior or community college, or a 4-year college program.
  14. Everyone was transferred from the Emergency Department, leaving me and her to handle all emergency cases.
  15. He and I cannot imagine work more personally satisfying than that of a hospice nurse.

Link to the rest at Nurse Author & Editor

PG admits his discovery of the OP was triggered by his dislike of the whole “personal pronouns” fashion/imposition/pretentiousness/fad.

When dinosaurs walked the earth, Mrs. Edna Lascelles, a delightful and tiny little English lady taught PG and his classmates the rules of English grammar. Since PG wanted to speak and write the way Mrs. Lascelles did, he worked hard to learn and apply those rules to his speaking and writing.

PG’s mother would become a high school English and Speech Teacher herself after PG and siblings had left the nest (She and PG graduated from college the same year and his mother had significantly higher GPA than PG did.) His mother had the same attitude toward the rules of English grammar, modeled them in her speech and writing and pointed out errors in grammar committed by those she and PG heard in various public places.

PG was also a voracious reader when he was growing up and credits that practice with also helping him to absorb the rules of grammar.

5 thoughts on “Correcting Pretentious Pronouns”

  1. The OP shamefully neglects the additional fun involved with languages that have distinct but homonymic and/or formal pronouns, not to mention grammatical-gender identifiers. Trying to figure out whether a dialect-laden German speaker from the depths of Schleswig-Holstein is referring to a third-person plural (before worrying about gender!) or the formal mode get even more fun when there’s overlap with the akkusitiv (English direct object) and dubiously-gendered nouns involved (one would use different pronouns for dogs and cats… regardless of the “sex” involved if not named). Of course, trying to figure out anything from a dialect-laden German speaker from the depths of Schleswig-Holstein is pretty challenging in itself.

    • one would use different pronouns for dogs and cats… regardless of the “sex” involved if not named

      I think this is the part where I would tap out if I had to learn this language. Then there’s Mark Twain’s famous essay about learning German, which I had hoped was an exaggeration, until you said the part I quoted just now. The anecdote about the fishwife and the tomcat is a thing to behold. And to think I was annoyed in French class that there was no rhyme or reason to which words were male and which ones were female. You would hope it was something simple, like “words that end in a vowel are female, and words that end in a consonant are male,”*** but nope. You just have to memorize. As if one has nothing else better to do with one’s memory banks!

      ***In kindergarten, they showed us educational videos about the adventures of the letters of the alphabet. All of the letters got around on roller skates, and could talk. The important thing here is that the consonants were boys, and the vowels were girls.

      • On the other hand, at least German spelling is logical and phonetic. English — not so much (“seasoned his rarebit with Worcester sauce overlooking Leicester square”). French — logic? Where? They just continue adding letters at the end of the word, after the last voiced element, at semirandom until they get bored.

  2. People who don’t realize they’re saying that they want to go with I to the store drive me crazy, especially since Miss Manners won’t let me correct other adults, or other people’s children.

    I must say, though, that the OP took a very large time to say it.

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