Despite the name, personal pronouns do not just refer to people, but also to other kinds of entities. Sometimes, they do not even 'mean' anything, as we discuss below.
Personal pronouns have two different case-forms, which we refer to as the subject form and the object form, reflecting their use in clauses. They also have different forms for singular and plural, and for different persons. The following table gives the different forms of personal pronouns in English.
The use of subject and object forms
If you feel that you need to read up on subjects, objects, and other clause elements, please follow this link:
The object forms of personal pronouns are used when the pronoun functions as an object in a clause, as in examples (1) and (2), or as the complement of a preposition, as in (3) and (4). The subject forms are only used when the pronoun functions as the subject, as in (5):
(1) We gave them to the headmaster. (them is the driect obejct)
(2) We gave her our keys. (her is the indirect object)
(3) We gave our keys to her. (her is the complement of the preposition to)
(4) We where standing right behind him. (him is the complement of the preposition behind)
(5) She sells seashells. (she is the subject of this sentence)
When the pronoun functions as a predicative, traditional prescriptive grammar would stipulate the subject form, but the object form is often felt to be more natural:
(6) The only person who noticed anything was me.
(7) Who’s in here? – It’s just me.
(8) That’s him, right there. Can’t you see him?
As a default form, i.e. where there is no grammatical context, the object form is used in English.
(9) Who wants to go swimming? – Me.
There is variation, and some confusion, in the choice of form after than and as, where some speakers feel that the subject form should be used, as these words can be used as conjunctions, which would be followed by the subject form, as in the following example:
(10) Bill is much faster than I am.
However, when than and as are followed only by the pronoun, they are most naturally analysed as prepositions, and are therefore followed by the object form, especially in informal registers.
(11) Bill is much faster than me.
In English, the variation/confusion extends to pronouns following but, except and like, as in the following examples. Again, the object form is felt to be more natural in informal contexts.
(12) Everyone understood the problem but/except me/I.
(13) My little brother is trying to speak like me/I.
In contexts where the object form appears too informal after like, there is a variant with as used as a conjunction.
(14) My brother is trying to speak as I do.
In some of the problematic contexts, there is also the option of using a reflexive pronoun instead of a personal one.
(15) Bill is faster than myself.
(16) Everyone understood the problem but/except myself.
In coordinated structures the objective form is sometimes found even when we expect the subject form. This usage is regarded as non-standard, and is best avoided by non-native speakers. There is also some variation among speakers with respect to which of two conjuncts can have the object form; the first only, the second only, or both.
(17) Me and my girlfriend are moving to a new house.
(18) My girlfriend and me are moving to a new house.
(19) Her and me/Me and her have had it with our neighbours.
Even in informal style, not all native speakers accept all of the options above. Again, it is possible to use a reflexive pronoun, at least in the second conjunct.
(20) My girlfriend and I/myself are moving to a new house. (LESS NATURAL: Myself and my girlfriend are moving to a new house.)
In coordinated structures, the subject form can sometimes be found in contexts where the object form would be expected. This usage can be explained as a form of hypercorrection and results from the frequent banning of phrases like me and my girlfriend discussed above.
The subject form of personal pronouns is most common when the pronoun is the second member of a coordination functioning as the object, as in (21). Example (22), with the subject form used in the function of indirect object, is clearly ungrammatical:
(21) They gave my wife and I a very expensive present.
(22) *They gave I a very expensive present.