Wednesday, 15 August 2012


Somehow or other, the incorrect use of pronouns has become endemic. Perhaps it is only those aged 50 or more who understand much about parts of speech and the rules of grammar. Increasingly the difference between subject and object pronouns seems to have evaporated.

English verb forms do not generally tell us who has the active voice. So English uses both subject and object pronouns. I, you, he she or it, we, you and they, are subject pronouns. Subject pronouns are me, you, him, her, it, us, you, and them. I hope I got that right.

Thus you say 'I met him' and not 'me met he'.

People generally can cope with correct use of subject pronouns when there is a single subject: eg 'I saw her.' But when the subject is plural, confusion reigns. 'She and I saw him' becomes 'Her and me saw him'

'Him and me took it'. 'Her and him go out together'.

Strangely enough, you don't often hear 'Us went out'

You cannot talk or write thus, for example, in Italian. The verb form tells you who the subject is. You don't need to use the subject pronoun. You can, but only for additional emphasis.

My daughter used to say " Me and Tracey' and I used to correct her each time, 'Tracey and I...' But it did not seem to do much good. The grandchildren make these same mistakes now.

The confusion between subject and object pronouns now seems endemic in fiction. Me remembers encountering it in Tracy Crisp's Black Dust Dancing and it made I wonder whether her wrote this deliberately or whether it was a genuine error. Now I keep coming across it all the time, the latest encounter being Ruth Rendell's novel The Vault. Verisimilitude, that how the people talk these days.

Don't teachers teach grammar any more?

Although I froth privately from time to time, I am provoked to write about this today because of an interview I listened to yesterday, on the ABC, with the excellent Margaret Throsby interviewing an economist, the journalist Jessica Irvine. Irvine is moving across from Fairfax to News Limited,which is a bastion of rather conservative values, and which employs a lot of people who want proper grammar taught in schools. (As do I.) She writes well, and clearly, and takes many examples from our everyday lives to make her points about economic conditions and theories. However, during the interview, although in many ways expressing herself clearly, she overused the expression 'sort of'. I was sufficiently provoked (or needing distraction from the nitty-gritty of my present existence) to listen again today to the podcast of the interview.

I did not manage to list all her uses of 'sort of', but there were more than 40. She did it so often that my innate pickiness was provoked, and perforce I took note.

They included:

That's the sort of competitor to Fairfax...
People are sort of worried about this tide of people
Sort of doing on-shore processing
That we're sort of talking about
And sort of make each other better off
To sort of smooth out
To get the government sort of out of the economy

Sort of every economist I know.
Sort of heart swelling music.
The central sort of lessons of economics
I've sort of given the example
Sort of satisfaction, well-being.
We sort of follow habits...
This has sort of been the big advance of economics
We'd much rather sort of buy a $100 pair of shoes.
We have sort of become a slave to the mortgage.
They make their money by sort of making losses.
It occurred to me to sort of put to them
A mathematician who sort of runs the numbers (!)
To work sort of through the High Commission
I'd sort of been at Belco High in Canberra
Political economy is sort of a different way to study way economics
To sort of view economics as a social science
Adam Smith is sort of where it all began
Societies sort of arrange themselves to the benefit of individuals
Corrupt sort of Wall St bank
A piece of sort of electronic music (and I thought it was was excruciatingly boring)
Sort of sound fixing board
I've sort of got this theory
It's sort of a spoonful of sugar
Economics sort of tells you how..
I'm sort of excited...

Oh dear!

And as for the disappearance of adverbs in spoken English, well, words fail me!  However, I may yet rise to the occasion. Angrily and grumpily, but accurately and, I hope, convincingly.


Friko said...

All it means is that you are getting old.

As a foreigner for whom English is a foreign language, who has 'learned' English rather than picked it up as I grew up, mistakes grate horribly. You can't get away from them. Even the BBC, that bastion of grammatical rectitude, is frequently wrong. It's only the oldies who complain, nobody else gives a toss and even teachers have told me not to get worked up about lousy grammar.

"Language is evolving all the time", they tell me.

Elephant's Child said...

I mind. I mind a lot. And can be found frothing and hissing at the television or the radio. Which achieves less than nothing.

Jan said...

I also mind and shudder at some of the atrocities. I think that the time of no grammar teaching is slowly coming to an end. I see my grandchildren being corrected. Unfortunately, many of their teachers come from the era when expression and being understood were paramount, so they often don't recognise mistakes.

I had teachers in primary school for whom grammar and spelling were important. We did English grammar every day for three years. I learnt no new constructions and grammar at High School as I had already done it. This included more complicated things like gerunds and gerundives. It was a valuable asset when doing Latin and other languages to be able to understand the concept before having to learn how to do it in another language.

When I started to learn koine Greek many years later, I found I was constantly being asked to explain simple concepts like subject and predicate and tense to other students who had no idea what those words meant. Let alone case, decline, conjugate and subjunctive.

Anna said...

I find that phrases like "sort of" are often used as fillers to soften what the speaker really wants to say. Possibly Jessica Irvine lacks the confidence to speak directly, or maybe she's been conditioned to speak that way so that she doesn't come across as too aggressive. The main reason I say this is I've noticed myself doing something similar in my new job. I've had to send a few emails to authors where I use as many words as possible so I don't seem like a demanding and uppity intern. I don't know if it works -- my stories are probably best left to email! Which I will do soon.

And on your other topic, my boyfriend has more than once pointed out my incorrect use of the object pronoun. It mortifies I, everytime.

Alexia said...

I mind hugely! And yes, I can assure you that teachers do teach grammar - well, some of us do, anyway. The trouble is that by the time my students reach me (I teach 15-18 year-olds) they have never been taught the tools for talking about language. They don't know what a pronoun is, let alone a subject or an object. I try, but it is disheartening.

I'm afraid that so many examples of 'sort of' would have made me stop listening very early in the interview!