First Person

“Are ya up for some skiing with Bethany and I?”

Oh, those pronouns. People seem to have more trouble with their pronouns when writing or speaking than they do with any other semantic, grammatical or communicative disorders (and orders). 

What causes todayʼs little peroration is, as one might easily predict (particularly for one like me who does not use Twitter), Facebook status updates. And as our title for today indicates, I want to focus on first things first.

English has three pronouns in both singular and plural forms,* not to mention also in nominative, possessive and objective cases — first, second and third person. When I was teaching, I used to like to tell the sophomores a fake bit of developmental psychology to help keep the three persons accurate…

When I was in the womb, preborn as the anti-abortion multitudes have taken to saying, if I was capable of consciousness at all,** I was only aware of one thing, one being, one oneness that comprised the all of everything — myself. Thatʼs the first person: “I,” “me” (avoiding for the moment the peculiar issues of plurality). 

Getting born introduces limitation (and probably, as Freud guessed, calamity and agony) when suddenly one is not the utter all and wholeness, totality… when oneʼs universe of self-contentment suffers contraction, eruption and expulsion… when, whether birthed into the cold air or warmed pool or whatever novel environment, one gets oneʼs breathing started, whether the midwife or doctor uses tickling, slapping or whatever method. Suddenly there is Someone Else in addition to Oneself/Myself right there, real and immediate, a second person — “you,” whoever that ever-changing other-one-who-is-here-with-me might shiftingly be through the long sequences of events that become a life.***

And when I get old enough to gossip with you about another person whoʼs not around us just now, that situation introduces the third person, whether than individual is “he, she or it.”

You and I together comprise “us,” first person plural, whereas several others around me (but not counting me) are “you” plural (that one poses few problems except sometimes in verb formulation), whereas more than one person not with us is third person plural, “them.” And with that last clause (and the first one, too, in that preceding sentence) we reach the crux of todayʼs problem, because if those other people about whom we are speaking do something, we would say, “They are doing whatever that thing is they are doing.” “They,” not “them” because in the imaginary sentence the third-person-plural are the subject of the sentence, the doers, not the objects (“them”).

With that affirmation of the distinction between nominative and objective cases (subjects versus objects), we hit whatʼs wrong with the (imaginary — all names and situations have been changed to protect the ignorant) sentence that began this post.

“Are ya up for some skiing with Bethany and I?”

We ignore the colloquial, informal transformation of “you” (presumably plural) to “ya,” and look at that final word. “With Bethany and first-person pronoun” is a prepositional phrase (a topic we have tackled before), and the noun (or pronoun) that follows a preposition (“with” in our sample case above) must be in the objective case, a rule which means nominative “I” is utterly, completely, laughably incorrect nonsense above. Leaving the second-person pronoun alone, the writer should have typed, “Are ya up for some skiing with Bethany and me?”

And thatʼs the way it is, Saturday, 11 February 2012.

* (to simplify matters for now, avoiding, for instance, the reflexive forms, et al.)

** And in a very Levi-Straussian structuralist way, I doubt that I was capable of consciousness until my being had encountered some kind of Other against which to rub my Self to trigger an awareness of myself…

*** I played with my favorite pronoun in that paragraph on second person, the indefinite “one,” which I much prefer to the colloquial (and illogical, when one puts oneʼs mind to it) indefinite, third-person-substitute “you” — a construction that just makes the clarity of first, second and third persons worthlessly confusing.

[Clip art images from websites available by clicking the pix.]

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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