By Geraldine Woods

Subjects and objects have opposite jobs in a sentence. Briefly, the subject is the doer of the action or whatever is in the state of being talked about in the sentence. When you say, “He and I are going to the mall,” you use the subject pronouns he and I. Objects receive; instead of acting, they are acted upon. If you scold him and me, those two pronouns resentfully receive the scolding and thus act as objects. Verbs have objects, and so do some other grammatical elements, such as prepositions.

One more complication: If a pronoun follows a linking verb — a verb expressing state of being — and completes the meaning of the subject-linking verb pair, you need a subject pronoun when you’re writing in formal English. The logic is that a linking verb acts as a sort of giant equal sign, and the subject and its complement must match. Here are the contents of the subject- and object-pronoun baskets:

  • Subject pronouns include I, you, he, she, it, we, they, who, and whoever.
  • Object pronouns are me, you, him, her, it, us, them, whom, and whomever.

Some pronouns, such as you and it, appear on both lists. They do double duty as both subject and object pronouns. Don’t worry about them; they’re right for all occasions. Other one-case-fits-almost-all pronouns are either, most, other, which, and that. Another type of pronoun is a reflexive, or -self pronoun (myself, himself, ourselves, and so forth). Use these pronouns only when the action in the sentence doubles back on the subject. (“They washed themselves 50 times during the deodorant shortage.”) You may also insert the -self pronouns for emphasis. (“She herself baked the cake.”) You can’t use the -self pronouns for any other reason. A sentence such as “The cake she gave myself was good” is wrong. Opt for “The cake she gave me.

Don’t unnecessarily buddy up a pronoun and the noun it replaces. “My brother he goes swimming” is fine in many languages, but in English it’s wrong because the pronoun (he) is meant to replace the noun (brother). “My brother goes swimming” or “He goes swimming” are both correct.

Practice questions

In the following sentences choose the correct pronoun from the parentheses, if — and only if — a pronoun is needed in the sentence. (If no pronoun is needed, select “no pronoun.”) Take care not to send a subject pronoun to do an object pronoun’s job, and vice versa.

  1. Codebusters may contact Matt first, or the company may wait until Matt realizes that (he/him/himself/no pronoun) needs help.
  2. (I/me/I myself/no pronoun) think that the parchment is a fake.

Answers to practice questions

  1. he. The verb needs must have a subject, and the subject pronoun he fills the bill.
  2. I or I myself. The first choice is an ordinary subject pronoun; the second is emphatic. Do you want to scream this phrase or just say it? Your call.