Misuse of Pronouns

We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.

On Forensic Fridays, we dissect the English language to see what it’s made of and how to use it properly. Today we’re going to discuss consistency in the person of pronouns we use.

To remind us of another of those classes we may have slept through in school, person identifies who is the subject, object or predicate nominative. First person is I or we. Second person is you. Third person is he, she or they. At least, those are the nominative case pronouns, used for subjects and predicate nominatives. Those used for objects of verbs or prepositions are me and us for first person, you for second person, and him, her or them for third person. I hope this all rings at least a vague bell.

The other day I came across the statement “When I’m having a bad day on the field, you just have to buckle down and try harder.” Did this athlete really mean to say that when he’s having a tough time you and I need to buckle down? Of course not. He meant to say “I have to buckle down.” I don’t know why he didn’t say what he meant, but I do know that I hear such statements very commonly.

Since the example mentioned above comes from a statement by an football player being interviewed, I’d like to be able to say this type of mistake is caused by the pressure of being interviewed in the heat of the moment after a game is over. I’d like to say that, but, unfortunately, I can’t. This type of error is much more ubiquitous than that. I think I’ve even caught it a time or in blogs, although I’m sure it was not yours.

Using you as sort of a universal word to include all of us is pretty common, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with it. Statements like, “When you’re up to your elbows in alligators, it’s hard to remember your objective is to drain the swamp,” are very expressive, and we all understand them. No problem there. Just don’t say, “When I’m up to my elbows in alligators, it’s hard to remember your objective is to drain the swamp.” Now we don’t know who was supposed to drain the swamp.

To avoid making this particular mistake, we just need to think through our statement and be sure we have the same person in the conditional statement (when up to the elbows . . .) mentioned in the unconditional statement (remembering to drain the swamp).

What grammatical misuse bothers you? What particular area of grammar would you like help with? I’d love to hear and help.

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For more information about David N. Walker, click the “About” tab above.

For more information about his books, click on “Books” above.

Contact him at dnwalkertx@gmail.com or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx.

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About David N. Walker

David N. Walker is a Christian husband, father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years in the health insurance industry, during which time he traveled much of the United States. He started writing about 20 years ago and has been a member and leader in several writers' groups. Christianity 101: The Simplified Christian Life, the devotional Heaven Sent and the novella series, Fancy, are now available in paperback and in Kindle and Nook formats, as well as through Smashwords and Kobo. See information about both of these by clicking "Books" above.
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7 Responses to Misuse of Pronouns

  1. “It” is also a nominative and objective third person pronoun. And how about the misuse of the “-self” pronouns? I shudder every time I see a “-self” pronoun used as a subject or object.

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  2. EllieAnn says:

    Another helpful post! Thanks for the grammar lesson. =)

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  3. denisedyoung says:

    Pronouns can be tricky. The one I see often–and I’ve even fallen into this trap a time or two–is when someone refers to an organization as “they.” As in, “When an organization faces tough times, they really need to buckle down.” Technically, the organization is singular, so rephrasing might be in order. “When an organization faces tough times, its (leaders, employees, members, etc.) need to buckle down.” This post is a good reminder for us all.

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  4. Lynn says:

    Ooh – I like the word ubiquitous! 🙂

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