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No Writer Wants to Diagram Sentences!

diagram sentencesNo one wants to diagram sentences! Who was it that invented that High School torture? I just bet that it was probably compounded by poor teaching, too. But that’s another story.

And yet… it’s actually important to know some of that stuff, especially for writers.

Lately, I’ve been reading some writing that reminds me why it’s important to know about things like subject, object and pronoun cases.

I know, that last sentence made my eyes cross, too! But let me talk about it in terms that make real-world sense.

Fortunately you don’t need a diagram for this one

You’ll be delighted you don’t need a diagram for this one.

Sometimes when you’re writing or talking about yourself you say, “I.” Sometimes you say, “me.” The difference between them is the case of the pronoun you’re using in place of your name. For some there can be confusion about them, although it is almost always when talking about more than one person. And that’s why I’m talking to you today because whenever I see this problem in something I’m reading, it gets me on my soap box.

Subject and object. The subject does something. The object is ‘done to’. At this time of year, the subject sends a gift and the object receives a gift. Simply put, I send a gift because I is the pronoun case for subjects. But if the gift is coming my way, it’s coming to me (not I) because me is the pronoun case for objects.

We all instinctively know this. You’d never say “Me sent a gift.” And you’d never say, “The gift arrived for I.” In those two wrong examples, the case does not match the ‘doing’ or the ‘doing to’ of the sentence. It’s obvious. But when you have yourself and another person involved with the gift, it can get confusing.

How we got here, probably

Somewhere historically, parents and possibly teachers tried very hard to get kids to quit saying “Me and Bobby sent a gift,” which is a normal developmental stage in children’s learning to speak English. “No, no,” they were told, “It’s Bobby and I!”

Pound that in hard enough without distinguishing between who is sending and who is receiving (pronoun case) you get indie writers with sentences like, “Grandmother sent a gift to Bobby and I.” Take Bobby out of that sentence and it’s obviously the wrong pronoun to be the object. (Grandmother sent a gift to I? Yikes!)

This grammatical glitch is unique to situations where there is more than one person involved with the gift—either as the sender or the receiver. So for anybody out there who might have any confusion about pronoun case (should it be I, or me?) just remember to take out the other person for a moment and see how it sounds. You’ll never mistake it again.

By the way, it’s a grammatical mistake made by all sorts of people in all sorts of situations from national politics and media to simple conversations. The fix is easy, though. Just be selfish for a minute and kick out the other person in the action. See if that doesn’t simplify it without getting all bogged down in grammatical terms like subject, object, and case.

Ellie WinslowEllie Winslow blogs about issues of healthy aging at http://mindingthemiddleagedmiddle.com and about marketing for farmers at http://beyondthesidewalk.com

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Maggi

    I forwarded this information to several people. Thanks for writing it. Too many people get this wrong and you have given easy-to-follow ideas for getting it right.

    But here’s what bothers me. At the outset you mention “cases.” I see “pronoun cases,” “the case of the pronoun” and more “cases” here. I had to think that if people don’t understand subjects and objects they aren’t likely to understand cases. Maybe an explanation of cases is needed? Are they like suitcases only they are containers for words? Are cases square or rectangular? I think if I hadn’t studied Latin and other languages I’d have no idea what you mean by cases.

    • Hmmm… I thought cases was pretty well understood as also an example or something specific to be studied. Maybe not.

  • Jan Rose

    The best book to understandings grammar is Barest Essential by Janet Panuska. Grammar can be learned quickly and efficiently by using her method: ask a question. i.e. The boy ran home.
    Q: who or what is being spoken about? A: boy is the subject. What about the boy? A: ran is the verb. Q: Ran where? Home is the object. Etc. Easy as pie when explained correctly. Grammar from simple sentences to compound-complex regardless of sentence length can be understood in a week.

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