Instructional Systems
Traditional English Grammar

Chapter Three: Agreement, Reference, and Case


Nouns and pronouns, as was pointed out in Chapter One, have three case functions: subjective (sometimes called nominative), objective, and possessive. Except for the possessive, nouns do not show case by a change in form. For example:


SUBJECTIVE: The teacher gave Mugwert the assignment.

 OBJECTIVE: Mugwert consulted the teacher about the assignment

POSSESSIVE: Mugwert thought that the teacher 's assignment was unfair.


In the first two examples, it is obvious that the word teacher does not change whether it is a subject or an object. It does change, however, when it indicates a possessive function. The possessive case of a noun is usually indicated by adding an apostrophe and an s to the word. (Sometimes the final s is dropped when the resulting sound is awkward.)





child 's

Jones' (or Jones's)




men' s


children 's


groups' (not groups's)

cities' (not cities's)


Pronouns, on the other hand, give much more case trouble to student writers than do nouns. There are only six pronouns that have differing subjective and objective case forms, so these are the ones to be on the lookout for: I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, and who/whom.


Common Pronoun Case Problems (Marking Symbol Case)

Most pronoun case problems occur in any of several situations:


1. Possessive Case Problems:

Be sure to use possessive adjective forms to modify gerunds:


Matilda won't mind your picking the roses.

(NOT: "you picking the roses")


We were surprised at Homer 's winning the race but not his bragging about it.

(NOT: "Homer winning the race . . . him bragging about it.")

Be sure to use whose, to show possession, not who 's (the contraction for who is):

The Rams drafted Hortense, whose passing is far superior to Namath's.

(NOT: "who's passing . . ."; i.e., "who is passing.")


Be sure to use its to show possession, not it's (the contraction for it is):

The frog seemed proud of its croaking.

(NOT: "it's croaking"; i.e., "it is croaking.")



2. Who/Whom Problems:

Here are some sentences that typify the who/whom dilemma:

Magruder knew the student who was selected.

(Here the definite relative pronoun who is clearly the subject of the adjective clause, and thus is in the subjective case.)


Magruder knew who won the award.

(Here the indefinite relative pronoun is the subject of the noun clause, but because it follows the transitive verb knew might be mistaken for the direct object. Actually the entire noun clause is the direct object.)


Magruder knew the student whom the committee selected.

(Here the pronoun is objective because it is the direct object of selected; substitute "the committee selected him" and this relationship will be apparent.)


Magruder knew the student whom the committee gave the award to.


 Magruder knew the student to whom the committee gave the award.

(Here the pronoun is in the objective case because it is the object of the preposition to. This relationship is more difficult to see when it is separated from the preposition as in the first example.)


Magruder knew whom the committee selected.

(Here the indefinite relative pronoun is in the objective case because it is the direct object of the verb in the dependent noun clause, selected. And not because it is the object of the transitive verb in the main clause knew. The entire clause, "whom the committee selected," is the direct object of knew.)


Magruder gave the award to whoever was selected by the committee.

(Here whoever is in the subjective case because it is the subject of the noun clause. The entire noun clause is the object of the preposition to.


Magruder gave the award to whomever the committee selected.

(Here whomever is in the objective case not because it is the object of the preposition to but because it is the direct object of the dependent clause verb selected. Again, the entire clause is the object of the preposition.)


Whom did Magruder give the award to? Whom did the committee choose?

(In general spoken English the interrogative pronoun forms here might well be who rather than whom because of the location in the sentence pattern. In choice written English, whom is preferred as the object of the preposition to in the first sentence and as the direct object of did choose in the second example.)


NOTE: One good test for the who/whom dilemma is to substitute he or they for who and him or them for whom in doubtful situations. You may have noticed the common ending, m, for these three objective case forms. Any place a him or a them will serve in the clause will require a whom as a relative or interrogative pronoun.


Who is it? It is he.


Whom did you see? You saw him.


I know the students whom you chose. You chose them.


We knew who won. He won.



3. Case Problems with Infinitives:


Pronoun subjects and complements of infinitives sometimes present some special pronoun case problems, especially when the infinitive is to be.

The subject of an infinitive is in the objective case.


We wanted them to choose Melrose.


We can trust him to be honest.


The complement of an infinitive is usually in the objective case, even if the infinitive is to be:


The committee asked me to recommend him.

Everyone thought the best candidate to be him.


When the infinitive to be has no subject, however, its complement is the subjective complement of the sentence subject and is, therefore, in the subjective case:


In the opinion of Melrose's friends, the best candidate was thought to be he.



4. Case Problems with Compounds:


Occasionally personal pronouns used in pairs or as part of a series of subjects or complements can cause problems. Here are some typical situations:


SUBJECT: Hortense and I will go to Mugwert's party.


DIRECT OBJECT: Mugwert invited Hortense and me.


OBJECT OF PREPOSITION: Matilda will ride with Mugwert, Hortense, and me.



5. Subjective Complement Problems:-

Most subjective complement case problems with pronouns occur in choice written English. Standard Spoken English seldom differentiates between objective case and subjective case in casual speech. "It's me," or "It's him" seldom elicits any disapproval from even the most educated listeners.

In written college expository prose, however, you would do well to observe the traditional case distinctions:


Consult Magruder about these specifications. It was he who designed the project .

Donors often realize that it is they who benefit from their contributions.



6. Appositive Problems:

An appositive is in the same case as the noun (or substantive) that it is in apposition with. Here are some typical situations involving pronouns as or with appositives.


SUBJECT: We good guys disliked Dick Dastard.

COMPLEMENT: Dick Dastard, it seems, disliked us good guys.

SUBJECT: His mortal enemies, Pearl Pureblood, Dudley Dogood, and I, pursued him.

OBJECT OF PREPOSITION: How could he escape with the intrepid trio--Pearl, Dudley, and me--on his trail.


7. Problems with Elliptical Clauses:


Some clauses, especially those of comparison, are elliptical; that is, they are left unfinished because the remaining parts are clearly understood. When a personal pronoun is the subject of an elliptical clause, be sure to use the subjective case form.


Mehitabel thought that no one was more charming than she [was].


Archie believed that Shakespeare could write poetry as well as he [could].




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