Usage Notes

When Is It 'You and I' or 'You and Me'?

Some pronoun advice for you (and her and him and them).

Native speakers are pronoun experts. We (we is a pronoun here referring to native speakers including yours truly) understand them (them is a pronoun referring to, uh, pronouns) easily and employ them (there it is again; it is another pronoun, here referring to the word them) without much need for examination. (A reminder: a pronoun is a word used instead of a noun or noun phrase that has either already been mentioned or does not need to be named specifically.)


But you (another one!) maybe knew that already.

Pronoun use is in fact proof of our facility with the language—we so often get them right, and they're not simple things. No one says "Us so often get them right," or "We so seldom get they wrong." But in a particular type of environment, pronoun use can get a bit muddled, as writer and humorist James Thurber noted:

I have been planning a piece on personal pronouns and the death of the accusative. Nobody says "I gave it to they," but "me" is almost dead, and I have heard its dying screams from Bermuda to Columbus: "He gave it to Janey and I." ... My cousin Earl Fisher said it to me in Columbus, "Louise and I gave it to he and she last Christmas."
— letter, 25 June 1956

Thurber has a point, and more than half a century later we're still seeing the same kind of thing that bothered him so much. Let's take a closer look at Thurber's objections. In both of the examples he gives the problematic pronouns are members of a compound phrase—that is, a phrase that has more than one distinct part. In the first it's Janey and I:

He gave it to Janey and I.

What's wrong with this sentence? It might look perfectly fine at first, but if we simplify the compound phrase a problem becomes clear:

He gave it to Janey. He gave it to I.

The first part works, but "He gave it to I" isn't idiomatic English. After a preposition like to we expect the accusative pronoun me, rather than the nominative pronoun I: "He gave it to me." The same is true after other prepositions as well:

They were with me.

It isn't for me.

It's not about me.

When we rewrite these with compound phrases we get the following:

He gave it to Janey and me.

They were with Janey and me.

It isn't for Janey and me.

It's not about me and Janey.

Note that there's nothing ungrammatical about putting me first, as in the last example; it's simply considered more polite to put oneself in the final position.

Thurber's second example is:

Louise and I gave it to he and she last Christmas.

"Louise and I" is fine, as we see if we separate the first compound phrase:

Louise gave it …; I gave it…

But if we separate the second compound phrase, a problem appears:

We gave it to he last Christmas. We gave it to she last Christmas.

Since we don't give something to he or give something to she, it's the accusative—him and her in this case—that's called for, as the pronoun follows the preposition to:

We gave it to him last Christmas. We gave it to her last Christmas.

The accusative is also called for when the pronoun is the object of the verb—that is, when it receives the action of the verb, such as her in "I saw her." Again, things get complicated when the pronoun is part of a compound phrase, as in this reworked version of Thurber's second example:

We gave he and she the book last Christmas.

When we separate the compound phrase, a similar situation arises:

We gave he the book last Christmas. We gave she the book last Christmas.

"We gave he the book" and "we gave she the book" don't sound right; the accusative once again comes to the rescue:

We gave him the book last Christmas. We gave her the book last Christmas.

While we won't agree with Thurber that the accusative is dead—phrases like "tell me" and "call him" and "show her" and "hear them" continue to be used with unfettered frequency—we do agree that compound phrases have a way of confusing people on their pronouns. To keep things clear, we advise that you separate the compounds to see which pronoun is the word you're looking for. In speech it may not matter to your audience much of the time, but in writing especially, you'll do well to keep the accusative in its place.


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