Lucky enough to see She & Him, a popular indie band, play the incomparable Governors Island in NYC on July 4, I confess that during the show I was intermittently beset by thoughts of case grammar. What IS case, really, and what does what we say about she and him say about how we see the world?
A bit of background: She & Him are Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, as well as subject and object pronouns, feminine and masculine, respectively. The duo has released two albums: Volume One and Volume Two. Zooey Deschanel is a charming and successful young actress [her most recent hit is the highly recommended (500) Days of Summer]* who records with M. Ward (a virtuoso of the modern indie folk scene). She sings, writes the songs, and plays the ukelele; he plays guitar and arranges and produces the music. Together they make sweet harmony and utterly infectious '60s-flavored pop.
Why their name itself is a hook as catchy as those in their music is easy to see; it combines the subjective case "she" with the objective case "him," jamming together two very common pronouns in a very uncommon pattern.
The pattern is unusual because subjects are subjects and objects are objects when it comes to pronouns in English, and seldom do the twain meet with only an ampersand between them. Most of the time it's a verb that comes between them: She loves him; she loves him not. How on earth could we write a grammatical sentence in English in which she and him did something together? Think about it. She & him rode bicycles through Williamsburg. I threw the vegan cookbook at she & him. Um, no. Not really.
Nouns don't change, or inflect, depending on what they do in a sentence, but pronouns do. Pronouns have case. When Zooey is the subject of a Pitchfork article, she is she; but when she is the object of your affection, it is her you are looking at, unless of course you prefer him.
Case is how nouns change to show their role in a sentence. Case is more characteristic of languages other than English and doesn't really have much to do with how English works, though, except when it comes to pronouns.
English depends much more on word order and prepositions to show nouns' roles in sentences. Consider "I bought a record at the store. The store is on Bedford Street." The noun "store" doesn't change case or spelling whether it is the subject of the sentence or the object of a preposition showing place. The adpositional element "at," the preposition, indicates that "store" is a location in the second sentence. Before we gleefullly wander off into adpositions and linguistics here, let's just say you can find inflected and isolating languages, languages that are analytic and show roles by word order, and we can figure out where English is along that spectrum.
But one thing that is much, much harder to figure out is why we construct language with subjects and objects in the first place. Not only English has actors and actions and those acted upon; not only English has subject/object duality. Why do we think of us and other? Does language like this accurately describe realtiy or construct something that looks like reality, where we live and speak and think? Philosophers and postmodernists and buddhists and yogis have argued about this kind of duallity for decades.
But no argument about She & Him—their name is thought-provoking, their music happiness-provoking, and their show was blog-provoking. And just in case you missed it, you can see some wonderful photos here.
What do you think of case? Do you think of case? In case of case, do you run in the other direction? More seriously, pose a question about case and we'll answer it here, or send in an example of wrongly used pronouns, found in the wild, in your reading or everyday life, and we'll discuss it next week.
* Know why I used those brackets there instead of parentheses? I do, of course, and I'll tell you why on next week's blog. But if a smartypants out there wants to tell all first, go for it!
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.
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