Personal pronouns are pronouns most obviously recognized for representing people, but they can also take the place of other actors and things in a sentence. Personal pronouns can seem difficult and complicated, especially for ESL students, because personal pronouns must be used correctly according to grammatical case, gender, number, and person. Most native English speakers instinctively know which personal pronouns to use by simply going with what sounds right. However, even native English speakers make many common pronoun mistakes in everyday speech and writing.
Part of what makes personal pronouns so complicated is that they must be used according to correct grammatical case, gender, number, and person. For those unfamiliar with these terms, case indicates whether a pronoun is being used as a subject (subjective case) or an object (objective case)*; gender indicates whether a pronoun is masculine, feminine, or neuter; number indicates whether a pronoun is singular or plural; and person indicates whether a pronoun refers to the speaker (first person), the listener (second person, i.e. you), or someone else who is neither the speaker nor the person being spoken to (third person).
|Person / Number||Subjective Case||Objective case|
|1st Person Singular||I||me|
|2nd Person Singular||you||you|
|3rd Person Singular||he / she / it||him / her / it|
|1st Person Plural||we||us|
|2nd Person Plural||you||you|
|3rd Person Plural||they||them|
Person, number, and gender are generally clear and straightforward, but even native speakers make a lot of mistakes when choosing the correct pronoun case. Let’s consider a few example sentences with common mistakes to get a better idea of how to use personal pronouns correctly.
John and me went to the store. (Wrong) John and I went to the store. (Correct)
In the first sentence, we cannot use me as a subject of the verb went because me is in the objective case. I is the correct first person pronoun to use as a subject because it is in subjective case.
That teacher has always been nice to you and I. (Wrong) That teacher has always been nice to you and me. (Correct)
People often use “you and I” and “you and me” interchangeably or else “overcorrect” themselves by using “you and I” in every situation, despite how awkward it may sound. The key is to understand if the pronouns in question are being used as subjects or as objects. In the sentence above, the pronouns are being used as objects of the preposition to. We therefore need to use the objective case me. And, of course, you stays the same in either case, so we cannot mess that one up.
You and me are best friends. (Wrong) You and I are best friends. (Correct)
In this sentence the pronouns in questions are the subjects of the verb are. It is then appropriate to use the subjective case I, not the objective case me.
Could you send her and I some of those cookies? (Wrong) Could you send her and me some of those cookies? (Correct)
*You might also see possessive case included in a list of grammatical cases. Although you might hear the term “possessive pronouns” used, possessives actually function as adjectives. For example, the possessive form of he/him is his:
John let me borrow his book last week.
The possessive “pronoun” his functions as an adjective describing the noun book. We can test this by asking some adjective questions. Whose book? Which book? His (John’s) book. It may be easier to remember and categorize such possessives in your mind as possessive case pronouns, but remember that they are actually adjectives by grammatical function.