Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

If He and She Is Right, Why Does It Sound So Weird?

Posted by Neal on February 13, 2008

When Doug’s teacher returns a graded paper to him, he rolls it up into a tight cylinder. He does this so that he can poke it into his almost-but-not-quite zipped up backpack without having to take the backpack off its hook. After lunch he unzips the backpack enough to stuff his lunchbox into it. He leaves the backpack half unzipped after this, which allows him to shove in any later-arriving papers without having to roll them up. I have assembled this picture from regularly emptying his backpack of one or two randomly wrinkled papers, then his lunchbox, and finally, one by one, any rolled-then-flattened papers hiding underneath it. Once I’ve thown the lunchbox back on top of the fridge, it’s time to unfurl the papers and look at them. The last one I looked at yesterday was a language arts paper. Doug had had to identify a few sentences as declarative, interrogative, etc., label nouns as singular or plural, and correct some sentences. One of the sentences to be corrected was:

him and her take ice skating lessons on wednesday

Doug’s answer:


They take ice skating lessons on Wednesday.

“Hah!” I burst out. This was great. His teacher had circled it and justifiably dinged him four points for it, but I still loved his answer.

“What’s so funny, Dad?” Doug asked.

I showed him the paper. He didn’t see the humor.

“What you did, Doug, it was like…” I said, “it was like … like Ralph S. Mouse not running through the maze to get to the peanut butter, but climbing up on top of the maze and running along the outside wall.”

Yeah, his teacher had said something along those lines, Doug told me. She said that several of the students had avoided correcting this problem instead of facing it head-on. She had wanted them to change him and her to he and she, Doug said, but that sounded weird. Why did she want them to give that answer?

I told Doug that his and his friends’ rule for when to use forms like he and she and when to use forms like him and her were different from the rules for the variety of English that he needed to learn in school.

“You’d never say, ‘Her takes ice skating lessons,’ or ‘Him takes ice skating lessons,’ would you?” I asked. “Or ‘Me eat cookies,’ unless you’re Cookie Monster?”

No, he agreed he wouldn’t. He would use the subjective forms she, he, or I.

“But when you have an and in there,” I said, “you do use her and him and me, right? You’d say, ‘Me and him ate the cookies,’ or ‘Him and her took lessons’ right?”

Again Doug agreed, and we summarized his rule of using objective pronoun forms whenever he connected pronouns with an and. (With or, too, but I didn’t go into that.) “But in the English you need to learn for schoolwork and for formal writing when you grow up,” I continued, “the rule is that if the pronoun is the subject, then by golly you have to use the subjective forms, whether or not you have an and!”

I think this topic is ripe for an elementary school linguistics presentation. It’s fine to explain the rule for standard English regarding coordinated subject pronouns, but it will be easier for kids to accept it if you say something up front about why the standard way of doing it sounds so weird and their own way sounds so natural. I imagine they’d be relieved to learn that they’re not going crazy; they just have to think of the English taught in school as a language similar in many ways to their own, but with occasional differences that have to be noted.

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9 Responses to “If He and She Is Right, Why Does It Sound So Weird?”

  1. Uly said

    I think his teacher was wrong. If “several” of her students did the same thing Doug did, then the test was written too vaguely. Doug did just the right thing – he changed a nonstandard form into a standard form. What more can she ask for?

  2. Neal said

    His answer was in standard English, but it changed the meaning of the sentence. Sure, every he+she is a they, but not every they is a he+she.

  3. Viola said

    I happened to be in the classroom when the teacher went over the language problems on this one, so I feel kind of like a sheepish cheat. Neal is right on with clarification. The teacher wasn’t misleading either–she was setting the standard for clarification and further thought on the matter, even though the correct answer sounded wierd. Correcting the sentence was extra food for thought for the kids. Holt will definitely read this blog purely for reinforcement purposes.

  4. The Ridger said

    This is especially true if “he and she” didn’t even occur to the kids.

  5. Ellen K. said

    “Him and her” and “he and she” both sound wrong to me in an out of context sentence such as that. Since “he and she” (or him and her) does not identify any actual individuals, changing it to they doesn’t change the meaning signficantly. And I’m thinking, in a context where using two separate pronouns, rather than “they”, makes sense, one would add the word “both”: “He and she both…”.

    “He and she…” sounds weird to me not because of using the subject forms of the pronouns with an “an” but because it’s simply not a sentence one would actually ever use.

  6. Neal said

    Ellen K:
    The sentence is indeed out of context; I thought imagining a context was something the students could do or not do depending on whether they found it helpful. For that matter, if the sentence had said, “Bob and Sarah take ice skating lessons,” we’d have had no idea who Bob and Sarah were, either. As for the claim that no one would ever say such a thing, don’t be too sure. If I were identifying the relevant persons in a group picture, I think it would be more natural to say “he and she” as I pointed to them in succession than to point with both fingers at once and say “they”.

  7. Viola said

    The wierdness, correctness, and clarification clearly come from perspective and context.

  8. prince said

    I feel bad for Doug. I was always one of the kids who couldn’t figure out what the test question was trying to say.

  9. […] you remember? You were in fourth grade! I can remember it as clearly as if I’d written a blog post about […]

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