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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

IX. The Common Speech

4. The Pronoun

THE FOLLOWING paradigm shows the inflections of the personal pronoun in the American common speech:

Common Gender
Possessive Conjoint
Common Gender
Masculine Gender
Feminine Gender
Neuter Gender

These inflections, as we shall see, are often disregarded in use, but nevertheless it is profitable to glance at them as they stand. The only variations that they show from standard English are the substitution of n for s as the distinguishing mark of the absolute form of the possessive, and the attempt to differentiate between the logical and the merely polite plurals in the second person by adding the usual sign of the plural to the former. The use of n in place of s is not an American innovation. It is found in many of the dialects of English, and is, in fact, historically quite as sound as the use of s. In John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible (circa 1380) the first sentence of the Sermon on the Mount (Mark v, 3) is made: “Blessed be the pore in spirit, for the kyngdam in hevenes is heren.” And in his version of Luke xxiv, 24, is this: “And some of ourenwentin to the grave.” Here heren (or herun) represents, of course, not the modern hers, but theirs. In Anglo-Saxon the word was heora, and down to Chaucer’s day a modified form of it, here, was still used in the possessive plural in place of the modern their, though they had already displaced hie in the nominative. But in John Purvey’s revision of the Wycliffe Bible, made a few years later, hern actually occurs in II Kings vii, 6, thus: “Restore thou to hir alle things that ben hern.” In Anglo-Saxon there had been no distinction between the conjoint and absolute forms of the possessive pronoun; the simple genitive sufficed for both uses. But with the decay of that language the surviving remnants of its grammar began to be put to service somewhat recklessly, and so there arose a genitive inflection of this genitive—a true double inflection. In the Northern dialects of English that inflection was made by simply adding s, the sign of the possessive. In the Southern dialects the old n-declension was applied, and so there arose such forms as minum and eowrum (=mine and yours), from min and eower (=my and your). Meanwhile, the original simple genitive, now become youre, also survived, and so the literature of the fourteenth century shows the three forms flourishing side by side: youre, youres and youren. All of them are in Chaucer.

Thus, yourn, hern, hisn, ourn and theirn, whatever their present offense to grammarians, are of a genealogy quite as respectable as that of yours, hers, his, ours and theirs. Both forms represent a doubling of inflections, and hence grammatical debasement. On the side of the yours-form is the standard usage of the past five hundred years, but on the side of the yourn-form there is no little force of analogy and logic, as appears on turning to mine and thine. In Anglo-Saxon, as we have seen, my was min; in the same way thy was thin. During the decadence of the language the final n was dropped in both cases before nouns—that is, in the conjoint form—but it was retained in the absolute form. This usage survives to our own day. One says “my book,” but “the book is mine”; “thy faith,” but “I am thine.” Also, one says “no matter,” but “I have none.” Without question this retention of the n in these pronouns had something to do with the appearance of the n-declension in the treatment of your, her, his and our, and, after their had displaced here in the third person plural, in their. And equally without question it supports the vulgar American usage today. What that usage shows is simply the strong popular tendency to make language as simple and as regular as possible—to abolish subtleties and exceptions. The difference between “his book” and “the book is his’n” is exactly that between my and mine, thy and thine, in the examples just given. “Perhaps it would have been better,” says Bradley, “if the literary language had accepted hisn, but from some cause it did not do so.”

As for the addition of s to you in the nominative and objective of the second person plural, it exhibits no more than an effort to give clarity to the logical difference between the true plural and the mere polite plural. In several other dialects of English the same desire has given rise to cognate forms, and there are even secondary devices in American. In the South, for example, the true plural is commonly indicated by you-all, which, despite a Northern belief to the contrary, is seldom used in the singular by any save the most ignorant. You-all, like yous, simply means you-jointly as opposed to the you that means thou. Again, there is the form observed in “you can all of you go to hell”—another plain effort to differentiate between singular and plural. The substitution of you for thou goes back to the end of the thirteenth century. It appeared in late Latin and in the other Continental languages as well as in English, and at about the same time. In these languages the true singular survives alongside the transplanted plural, but English has dropped it entirely, save in its poetical and liturgical forms and in a few dialects. It passed out of ordinary polite speech before Elizabeth’s day. By that time, indeed, its use had acquired an air of the offensive, such as it has today, save between intimates or to children, in Germany. Thus, at the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603, Sir Edward Coke, then attorney-general, displayed his animosity to Raleigh by addressing him as thou, and finally burst into the contemptuous “I thou thee, thou traitor!” And in “Twelfth Night” Sir Toby Belch urges Sir Andrew Aguecheek to provoke the disguised Viola to combat by thouing her. In our own time, with thou passed out entirely, even as a pronoun of contempt, the confusion between you in the plural and you in the singular presents plain difficulties to a man of limited linguistic resources. He gets around them by setting up a distinction that is well supported by logic and analogy. “I seen yous” is clearly separated from “I seen you.” And in the conjoint position “yous guys” is separated from “you liar.”

Let us now glance at the demonstrative and relative pronouns. Of the former there are but two in English, this and that, with their plural forms, these and those. To them, American adds a third, them, which is also the personal pronoun of the third person, objective case. In addition it had adopted certain adverbial pronouns, this-here, these-here, that-there, those-there and them-there, and set up inflections of the original demonstratives by analogy with mine, hisn and yourn, to wit, thisn, thesen, thatn and thosen. I present some examples of everyday use:

  • Them are the kind I like.
  • Them men all work here.
  • Who is this-here Smith I hear about?
  • These-here are mine.
  • That-there medicine ain’t no good.
  • Those-there wops has all took to the woods.
  • I wisht I had one of them-there Fords.
  • Thisn is better’n thatn.
  • I like thesen better’n thosen.
  • The origin of the demonstratives of the thisn-group is plain: they are degenerate forms of this-one, that-one, etc., just as none is a degenerate composition form of no(t)-one. In every case of their use that I have observed the simple demonstratives might have been set free and one actually substituted for the terminal n. But it must be equally obvious that they have been reinforced very greatly by the absolutes of the hisn-group, for in their relation to the original demonstratives they play the part of just such absolutes and are never used conjointly. Thus, one says, in American, “I take thisn” or “thisn is mine,” but one never says “I take thisn hat” or “thisn dog is mine.” In this conjoint situation plain this is always used, and the same rule applies to these, those and that. Them, being a newcomer among the demonstratives, has not yet acquired an inflection in the absolute. I have never heard them’n, and it will probably never come in, for it is forbiddingly clumsy. One says, in American, both “them are mine” and “them collars are mine.”

    This-here, these-here, that-there, those-there and them-there are plainly combinations of pronouns and adverbs, and their function is to support the distinction between proximity, as embodied in this and these, and remoteness, as embodied in that, those and them. “This-here coat is mine” simply means “this coat here, or this present coat, is mine.” But the adverb promises to coalesce with the pronoun so completely as to obliterate all sense of its distinct existence, even as a false noun or adjective. As commonly pronounced, this-here becomes a single word, somewhat like thish-yur, and these-here becomes these-yur, and that-there and them-there become that-ere and them-ere. Those-there, if I observe accurately, is still pronounced more distinctly, but it, too, may succumb to composition in time. The adverb will then sink to the estate of a mere inflectional particle, as one has done in the absolutes of the thisn-group. Them, as a personal pronoun in the absolute, of course, is commonly pronounced em, as in “I seen em,” and sometimes its vowel is almost lost, but this is also the case in all save the most exact spoken English. Sweet and Lounsbury, following the German grammarians, argue that this em is not really a debased form of them, but the offspring of hem, which survived as the regular plural of the third person in the objective case down to the beginning of the fifteenth century. But in American them is clearly pronounced as a demonstrative. I have never heard “em men” or “em are the kind I like,” but always “them men” and “them are the kind I like.”

    The relative pronouns, so far as I have been able to make out, are declined as follows:


    Two things will be noted in this paradigm. First there is the disappearance of whom as the objective form of who, and secondly there is the appearance of an inflected form of whose in the absolute, by analogy with mine, hisn and thesen. Whom, as we have seen, is fast disappearing from standard spoken American; in the vulgar language it is already virtually extinct. Not only is who used in such constructions as “who did you find there?” where even standard spoken English would tolerate it, but also in such constructions as “the man who I saw,” “them who I trust in” and “to who?” Krapp explains this use of who on the ground that there is a “general feeling,” due to the normal word-order in English, that “the word which precedes the verb is the subject word, or at least the subject form.” But this explanation is probably fanciful. Among the plain people no such “general feeling” for case exists. Their only “general feeling” is a prejudice against case inflections in any form whatsoever. They use who in place of whom simply because they can discern no logical difference between the significance of the one and the significance of the other.

    Whosen, which is still relatively rare, is obviously the offspring of the other absolutes in n. In the conjoint relation plain whose is always used, as in “whose hat is that?” and “the man whose dog bit me.” But in the absolute whosen is sometimes substituted, as in “if it ain’t hisn, then whosen is it?” The imitation is obvious. There is an analogous form of which, to wit, whichn, resting heavily on which one. Thus, “whichn do you like?” and “I didn’t say whichn” are plainly variations of “which one do you like?” and “I didn’t say which one.” That, as we have seen, has a like form, thatn, but never, of course, in the relative situation. “I like thatn” is familiar, but “the one thatn I like” is never heard. If that, as a relative, could be used absolutely, I have no doubt that it would change to thatn, as it does as a demonstrative. So with what. As things stand, it is sometimes substituted for that, as in “them’s the kind what I like.” Joined to but it can also take the place of that in other situations, as in “I don’t know but what.”

    The substitution of who for whom in the objective case, just noticed, is typical of a general movement toward breaking down all case distinctions among the pronouns, where they make their last stand in English and its dialects. This movement, of course, is not peculiar to vulgar American; nor is it of recent beginning. So long ago as the fifteenth century the old clear distinction between ye, nominative, and you, objective, disappeared, and today the latter is used in both cases. Sweet says that the phonetic similarity between ye and thee, the objective form of the true second singular, was responsible for this confusion. In modern spoken English, indeed, you in the objective often has a sound far more like that of ye than like that of you, as, for example, in “how do y’ do?” and in American its vowel takes the neutral form of the e in the definite article, and the word becomes a sort of shortened yuh. But whenever emphasis is laid upon it, you becomes quite distinct, even in American. In “I mean you,” for example, there is never any chance of mistaking it for ye. In Shakespeare’s time the other personal pronouns of the objective case threatened to follow you into the nominative, and there was a compensatory movement of the nominative pronouns toward the objective. Lounsbury has collected many examples. Marlowe used “is it him you seek?”, “’tis her I esteem” and “nor thee nor them shall want”; Fletcher used “’tis her I admire”; Shakespeare himself used “that’s me.” Contrariwise, Webster used “what difference is between the duke and I?” and Green used “nor earth nor heaven shall part my love and I.” Krapp has unearthed many similar examples from the Restoration dramatists. Etheredge used “’tis them,” “it may be him,” “let you and I” and “nor is it me”; Matthew Prior, in a famous couplet, achieved this:

  • For thou art a girl as much brighter than her
  • As he was a poet sublimer than me.
  • The free exchange continued, in fact, until the eighteenth century was well advanced; there are examples of it in Addison. Moreover, it survived, at least in part, even the attack that was then made upon it by the professors of the new-born science of English grammar, and to this day “it is me” is still in more or less good colloquial use. Sweet thinks that it is supported in such use, though not, of course, grammatically, by the analogy of the correct “it is he” and “it is she.” Lounsbury, following Dean Alford, says it came into English in imitation of the French c’est moi, and defends it as at least as good as “it is I.” The contrary form, “between you and I,” has no defenders, and is apparently going out. But in the shape of “between my wife and I” it is seldom challenged, at least in spoken English.

    All these liberties with the personal pronouns, however, fade to insignificance when put beside the thoroughgoing confusion of the case forms in vulgar American. “Us fellas” is so far established in the language that “we fellas” from the mouth of a car conductor would seem almost an affectation. So, too, is “me and her are friends.” So, again, are “her and I set down together,” “him and his wife,” and “I knowed it was her.” Here are some other characteristic examples of the use of the objective forms in the nominative from Characters, Lardner and other writers:

  • Me and her was both late.
  • His brother is taller than him.
  • That little boy was me.
  • Us girls went home.
  • They were John and him.
  • Her and little Al is to stay here.
  • She says she thinks us and the Allens.
  • If Weaver and them had not of begin kicking.
  • Us two’ll walk, me and him.
  • But not me.
  • Him and I are friends.
  • Me and them are friends.
  • Less numerous, but still varied and plentiful, are the substitutions of nominative forms for objective forms:

  • She gave it to mother and I.
  • She took all of we children.
  • I want you to meet he and I at 29th street.
  • It is going to cost me $6 a week for a room for she and the baby.
  • Anything she has is O.K. for I and Florrie.
  • Here are some grotesque confusions, indeed. Perhaps the best way to get at the principles underlying them is to examine first, not the cases of their occurrence, but the cases of their non-occurrence. Let us begin with the transfer of the objective form to the nominative in the subject relation. “Me and her was both late” is obviously sound American; one hears it, or something like it, on the streets every day. But one never hears “me was late” or “her was late” or “us was late” or “him was late” or “them was late.” Again, one hears “us girls was there” but never “us was there.” Yet again, one hears “her and John was married,” but never “her was married.” The distinction here set up should be immediately plain. It exactly parallels that between her and hern, our and ourn, their and theirn: the tendency, as Sweet says, is “to merge the distinction of nominative and objective in that of conjoint and absolute.” The nominative, in the subject relation, takes the usual nominative form only when it is in immediate contact with its verb. If it be separated from its verb by a conjunction or any other part of speech, even including another pronoun, it takes the objective form. Thus “me went home” would strike even the most ignorant shopgirl as “bad grammar,” but she would use “me and my friend went,” or “me and him,” or “he and her,” or “me and them” without the slightest hesitation. What is more, if the separation be effected by a conjunction and another pronoun, the other pronoun also changes to the objective form, even though its contact with the verb may be immediate. Thus one hears “me and her was there,” not “me and she”; “her and him kissed,” not “her and he.” Still more, this second pronoun commonly undergoes the same inflection even when the first member of the group is not another pronoun, but a noun. Thus one hears “John and her was married,” not “John and she.” To this rule there is but one exception, and that is in the case of the first person pronoun, especially in the singular. “Him and me are friends” is heard often, but “him and I are friends” is also heard. I seems to suggest the subject very powerfully; it is actually the subject of perhaps a majority of the sentences uttered by an ignorant man. At all events, it resists the rule, at least partially, and may even do so when actually separated from the verb by another pronoun, itself in the objective form, as, for example, in “I and him were there.”

    In the predicate relation the pronouns respond to a more complex regulation. When they follow any form of the simple verb of being they take the objective form, as in “it’s me,” “it ain’t him,” and “I am him,” probably because the transitiveness of this verb exerts a greater pull than its function as a mere copula, and perhaps, too, because the passive naturally tends to put the speaker in the place of the object. “I seen he” or “he kissed she” or “he struck I” would seem as ridiculous to an ignorant American as to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his instinct for simplicity and regularity naturally tends to make him reduce all similar expressions, or what seem to him to be similar expressions, to coincidence with the more seemly “I seen him.” After all, the verb of being is fundamentally transitive, and, in some ways, the most transitive of all verbs, and so it is not illogical to bring its powers over the pronoun into accord with the powers exerted by the others. I incline to think that it is some such subconscious logic, and not the analogy of “it is he,” as Sweet argues, that has brought “it is me” to conversational respectability, even among rather careful speakers of English.

    But against this use of the objective form in the nominative position after the verb of being there also occurs in American a use of the nominative form in the objective position, as in “she gave it to mother and I” and “she took all of we children.” What lies at the bottom of it seems to be a feeling somewhat resembling that which causes the use of the objective form before the verb, but exactly contrary in its effects. That is to say, the nominative form is used when the pronoun is separated from its governing verb, whether by a noun, a noun-phrase or another pronoun, as in “she gave it to mother and I,” “she took all of we children” and “he paid her and I,” respectively. But here usage is far from fixed, and one observes variations in both directions—that is, toward using the correct objective when the pronoun is detached from the verb, and toward using the nominative even when it directly follows the verb. “She gave it to mother and me,” “she took all of us children” and “he paid her and me” would probably sound quite as correct, to a Knight of Pythias, as the forms just given. And at the other end Charters and Lardner report such forms as “I want you to meet he and I” and “it is going to cost me $6 a week for a room for she and the baby.” I have noticed, however, that the use of the nominative is chiefly confined to the pronoun of the first person, and particularly to its singular. Here again we have an example of the powerful way in which I asserts itself. And superimposed upon that influence is a cause mentioned by Sweet in discussing “between you and I.” It is a sort of by-product of the pedagogical war upon “it is me.” “As such expressions,” he says, “are still denounced by the grammars, many people try to avoid them in speech as well as in writing. The result of this reaction is that the me in such constructions as ‘between John and me’ and ‘he saw John and me’ sounds vulgar and ungrammatical, and is consequently corrected into I.” Here the pedagogues, seeking to impose an inelastic and illogical grammar upon a living speech, succeed only in corrupting it still more.

    Following than and as the American uses the objective form of the pronoun, as in “he is taller than me” and “such as her.” He also uses it following like, but not when, as often happens, he uses the word in place of as or as if. Thus he says “do it like him,” but “do it like he does” and “she looks like she was sick.” What appears here is an instinctive feeling that these words, followed by a pronoun only, are not adverbs, but prepositions, and that they should have the same power to put the pronoun into an oblique case that other prepositions have. Just as “the taller of we” would sound absurd to all of us, so “taller than he,” to the unschooled American, sounds absurd. This feeling has a good deal of respectable support. “As her” was used by Swift, “than me” by Burke, and “than whom” by Milton. The brothers Fowler show that, in some cases, “than him” is grammatically correct and logically necessary. For example, compare “I love you more than him” and “I love you more than he.” The first means “I love you more than (I love) him”; the second, “I love you more than he (loves you).” In the first him does not refer to I, which is nominative, but to you, which is objective, and so it is properly objective also. But the American, of course, uses him even when the preceding noun is in the nominative, save only when another verb follows the pronoun. Thus, he says, “I love you better than him,” but “I love you better than he does.”

    In the matter of the reflexive pronouns the American vulgate exhibits forms which plainly show that it is the spirit of the language to regard self, not as an adjective, which it is historically, but as a noun. This confusion goes back to Anglo-Saxon days; it originated at a time when both the adjectives and the nouns were losing their old inflections. Such forms as Petrussylf (=Peter’s self), Cristsylf (=Christ’s self) and Icsylf (=I, self) then came into use, and along with them came combinations of self and the genitive, still surviving in hisself and theirselves (or theirself). Down to the sixteenth century these forms remained in perfectly good usage. “Each for hisself,” for example, was written by Sir Philip Sidney, and is to be found in the dramatists of the time, though modern editors always change it to himself. How the dative pronoun got itself fastened upon self in the third person masculine and neuter is one of the mysteries of language, but there it is, and so, against all logic, history and grammatical regularity, himself, themselves and itself (not its-self) are in favor today. But the American, as usual, inclines against these illogical exceptions to the rule set by myself. I constantly hear hisself and theirselves, as in “he done it hisself” and “they know theirselves.” Also, the emphatic own is often inserted between the pronoun and the noun, as in “let every man save his own self.” In general the American vulgate makes very extensive use of the reflexive. It is constantly thrown in for good measure, as in “I overeat myself” and it is as constantly used singly, as in “self and wife.”

    The American pronoun does not necessarily agree with its noun in number. I find “I can tell each one what they make,” “each fellow put their foot on the line,” “nobody can do what they like” and “she was one of these kind of people” in Charters, and “I am not the kind of man that is always thinking about their record,” “if he was to hit a man in the head… they would think their nose tickled” in Lardner. At the bottom of this error there is a real difficulty: the lack of a pronoun of the true common gender in English, corresponding to the French soi and son. His, after a noun or pronoun connoting both sexes, often sounds inept, and his-or-her is intolerably clumsy. Thus the inaccurate plural is often substituted. The brothers Fowler have discovered “anybody else who have only themselves in view” in Richardson and “everybody is discontented with their lot” in Disraeli, and Ruskin once wrote “if a customer wishes you to injure their foot.” In spoken American, even the most careful, they and their often appear; I turn to the Congressional Record at random and in two minutes find “if anyone will look at the bank statements they will see.” In the lower reaches of the language the plural seems to get into every sentence of any complexity, even when the preceding noun or pronoun is plainly singular. Such forms as “every man knows their way,” and “nobody oughter never take what ain’t theirn” are quite common.

    In demotic American the pedantry which preserves such forms as someone’s else is always disregarded; someone else’s is invariably used. I have heard “who else’s wife was there?” and “if it ain’t his’n, it ain’t nobody here else’s.” Finally, I note that he’s seems to be assimilating with his. In such sentences as “I hear he’s coming here to work,” the sound of he’s is precisely that of his.