When studying for standardized exams that test standard English, we tend to become increasingly self-conscious of our own use of grammar in our everyday speech and correspondence (if tweets and facebook posts count as correspondence). Sometimes, we might even go too far and over-correct ourselves. Well intentioned as these over-corrections might be, the SAT and ACT consider them to be just as wrong as the original mistakes. One of the most common instances of over-correction is the use of the pronoun “I” when the pronoun “me” should be used.
Most people have no trouble spotting errors in which “me” is used in place of “I”: “Me want more cookies!” clearly should be “I want more cookies!” Some, however, take this too far and start using “I” even when it isn’t needed (including our three most recent presidents). So, what is the actual difference between “I” and “me” then? Since the rules of modern standard English were codified in the nineteenth century, the distinction has been one of pronoun case.
“Pronoun what?” you ask? Never fear; though “pronoun case” sounds like dreadfully technical grammarian jargon, for our purposes it is a fairly simple concept that you use and encounter everyday, even if you didn’t know it had a special name. To understand pronoun case, we must first talk a little bit about nouns. Nouns, as you may recall, are people, places, things, and ideas, and all nouns can function in one of two ways within a clause: they can be either subjects or objects. Whether a noun is a subject or an object depends on its relation to the clause’s verb, the word that expresses the action or state of being being performed in the clause. If a noun is performing a verb, then it is a subject. All other nouns are objects.
Pronouns are another part of speech that can be viewed as “nouns for short”: they stand in for nouns and also indicate who is speaking, who is being spoken to, and who is being spoken about. They can also tell you whether they function as subjects or verbs depending on their case. For instance, if I say “I write blogs,” then I use the nominative case of the first person singular nominative case pronoun (“I”), because I am the one doing the writing. If I say “The internet terrifies me,” then I use the first person singular objective case pronoun, “me,” because I am the one being terrified. Nominative case pronouns function as subjects, while objective case pronouns function as objects. The chart below contains most of the pronoun forms you are likely to encounter on the SAT and ACT exams:
You may have noticed that some of them don’t change: “it” remains “it” regardless of case, and the second person pronoun remains the same regardless of case or number. Interestingly, this was not always the case (no pun intended). If you have studied foreign languages, you may have learned that other languages often have different pronouns for the singular and plural forms of the second person pronoun; the singular form is also usually considered more intimate/informal while the plural form is usually considered more polite/formal (this means that in formal situations, you can use the plural form as singular pronoun – we can blame the royal “we” for this). For instance, French has the singular, informal “tu” and the plural, formal “vous.” English once had multiple forms of “you” as well. Do you know what they were? I guarantee you that you’ve heard them before. What does Juliet say when she’s on her balcony? “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”
English once employed several different second person pronouns in order to distinguish among cases, numbers, and (after the Norman conquest) levels of formality: “thou” and “thee,” as well as “ye” and “you.” Now, which pair was singular/informal and which was plural/informal? If you thought that “thou” and “thee” were formal, that’s probably because they have mostly been preserved in modern English through translations of the Bible, particularly in the King James translation. In reality, however, “thee” and “thou” were actually the singular, intimate, informal versions of the second person while “ye” and “you” were the more formal, plural versions. When you think about it, it makes sense: would Juliet use the intimate or formal version of “you” with Romeo? In case you were wondering, “thou” and “ye” were nominative case pronouns, while “thee” and “you” were objective case pronouns (although “you” was also increasingly used as a nominative case pronoun during the era of Early Modern English).
You won’t have to differentiate between “thee” and “thou” on the SAT and ACT, but everything in the chart above is fair game. The most usual trick the test writers use to test pronoun case is the placement of a nominative case pronoun in a prepositional phrase where it doesn’t belong, especially as the second noun following the preposition. For instance consider the following examples:
“Between my sister and I”
“A gift from Jane and he”
“A play performed by John and we”
All of these are wrong. Because these pronouns are the objects of their respective prepositions, they should be objective case pronouns, not nominative case pronouns. See corrected versions below:
“Between my sister and me”
“A gift from Jane and him”
“A play performed by John and us”
Whenever you see a preposition, check to make sure that any pronouns that follow it are objective case pronouns. Before you go, consider the following practice problem taken from a real SAT exam:
After you work this problem, you can submit your answer with a corrected version of the sentence in the comments below. Keep studying, and good luck!