Personal Pronouns - Case  

What is case in English grammar?

The English language has largely discarded its case system, which is the manner by which a noun is inflected depending on its grammatical function as a subject or object in a sentence. English largely uses prepositions to accomplish this now, but personal pronouns are one part of English in which the case system is still active, being inflected depending on whether they function as a subject, object, possessive determiner, or possessive pronoun.

Subjective Case

When a personal pronoun is acting as the subject of a verb (that is, it is the person or thing doing the action), it is said to be in the subjective case. For instance:
  • I know that she said that.” (Both pronouns are subjective, as both are agents of their respective actions.)
  • He told her to be quiet.” (Here, only he is in the subjective case; her, the recipient or “object” of his action, is in the objective case.)

Objective Case

A personal pronoun is in the objective case when it is a direct or indirect object of a verb, or else if it is the object of a preposition.
A direct object directly receives the action of a verb. For example:
  • “Please send them in straight away.”
  • “Take him away!”
An indirect object, on the other hand, is the recipient of the direct object—it therefore indirectly receives the action of the verb via the direct object. For example:
  • “Please tell me any news immediately!”
Here, any news is acting as the direct object of the verb tell—it is the thing being told. Me, on the other hand, is looking to receive any news by means of the action of tell, making it the indirect object.
  • “I can’t believe he brought you flowers. How sweet!”
Again, you is receiving the flowers, which is the direct object of brought. Be careful with the personal pronouns you and it, however—their subjective and objective forms are the same. Take the following sentence, for example:
  • You said to give you the money as soon as I had it.”
The pronouns you and I in italics are in the subjective case because they are each performing the action of their verbs. The pronouns you and it in bold are in the objective case because they are functioning as indirect and direct objects of their verbs (respectively).

After Linking Verbs (Subject Complements)

One confusing area is when a pronoun is a subject complement to a linking verb. For personal pronouns, this is almost always with forms of the verb be. In this situation, the personal pronoun should be in the subjective case. For example, “It was I who did this” is more correct than “It was me who did this.”
It is easy to mistake it as the direct object because it seems like it is receiving the action of the verb, but linking verbs behave differently from action verbs. One way to be sure you are using the correct pronoun is to reverse the order of the verb and pronoun and see if the statement still makes sense.
Let’s look again at the examples above:
If you reverse the order of the verb and pronoun, you can see why the first sentence is incorrect:
(*Because in most instances we don’t refer to a person as being it in a subject complement (except maybe in a game of tag), the indefinite pronoun phrase the one is used instead to identify the speaker as the person who did something.)
Here are some more examples:
  • “Her husband took all the credit, but it was she who did all the work.”
  • “It was they who assured us that there would be no problems.”
In many cases, it might be better to simply reword the sentence to sound less awkward. For example, “it was he who won the race” would sound better simply as “he won the race.”
In conversational English, this distinction is much less frequently observed for simple sentences like our first examples, and you will often hear people using phrases such as “it’s me” or “that was her” in response to questions. But in writing (especially formal or professional writing), always use the subjective case for a personal pronoun if it is functioning as a subject complement after a linking verb.

Possessive Case (Genitive Case)

As the name implies, the possessive case changes the inflection of a personal pronoun to mark possession. There are two forms of personal pronouns in the possessive case: possessive determiners, and possessive pronouns.
Possessive determiners function grammatically like adjectives, modifying a noun or nouns. However, they cannot function as nouns in a sentence. For example:
Possessive pronouns are personal pronouns in the possessive case which have the grammatical function of nouns. For example:
  • “I can see mine through the window!”
  • “You said you bought yours for $50?”
  • “Jenny seems pretty sure that the book is hers.”
Be aware that the possessive determiners and possessive pronouns for the third-person masculine and third-person neuter are the same (his and his, its and its), although its is more often used as a possessive determiner in the phrase its own. For example:
  • “He said it was his computer, but I don’t think it is actually his.”
  • “As the campaign reached the peak of its success, it seemed to take on a life of its own.”

1. What determines if a personal pronoun is in the subjective case?

2. How does a possessive determiner function grammatically?

3. Which of the following possessive determiners is the same when it functions as a possessive pronoun?

4. In the following sentence, which personal pronoun is in the objective case?
“I have told him a thousand times that he shouldn’t act that way!”

5. Which of the following sentences has a possessive determiner?

Get all volumes of The Farlex Grammar Book in paperback or eBook.
Share Tweet