Errors and Omissions: She or her? The tricky business of English pronouns

Our Letters Editor reviews the slips from this week's Independent


Here is the finest example I know of sheer grammatical brio. It comes from J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “You will find naught that is not well known to me, who am master of the lore of this city.”

Not coincidentally, these words are reported by Gandalf, who is an Oxford don with magical powers and a mission to save the world from a descent into darkness. You don’t have to be, as Tolkien was, Merton Professor of English Language and Literature in the University of Oxford, to have the self-confidence to write “me, who am”, but I suppose it helps.

Anyway, what we need is a mission to save English pronouns from a descent into chaos. This is from a book review published last Saturday: “To the outside world, their money and good looks make she and her husband an enviable pair.”

That is not unusual; perhaps most writers would do it like that. But it still makes no sense, and it should be “her and her husband”. Full marks to Microsoft Word, by the way: its spelling and grammar checker picked up the error. Nobody would write “Money and good looks make she an enviable woman.” So why does the insertion of  “and her husband” turn the accusative “her” to a nominative “she”, in defiance of grammatical logic?

Up and down: Tuesday’s Dilemmas column was about a mother’s difficulty in trying to get her son to do his school work. One of the answers from readers said that the motivation must come from the boy himself. The headline: “It’s down to him”.

No, it’s up to him – that is to say, it is something he has to do. Something that he has already done would be down to him – down, so to speak, on his score card.

No principals: On Monday, a story about the Booker Prize quoted an author: “In principal, I should believe in all prizes being open to everyone.” That should be “in principle”, but it is hard to write with conviction about “principal” and “principle”, since they are the same word, derived from the Latin princeps. To spell it one way when it means “first in rank” (principal) and another when it  means a fundamental maxim of belief or behaviour (principle), is just an arbitrary nuisance. In speech, both are pronounced  the same without ambiguity, so why spell them differently?

However, while the distinction exists, it  is incumbent upon professional writers to  get it right, so as to avoid distracting the discerning reader.

Stationary: On Tuesday we reported on the prospective sale of a disused London Underground station: “Brompton Road station, once situated on the Piccadilly line between South Kensington and Knightsbridge, is on the market for around £100m.”

Almost right, but not quite. The station hasn’t moved. What remains of it is still situated on the Piccadilly line between South Kensington and Knightsbridge, though the platforms are bricked up and the trains don’t stop there.

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