In (spoken) English, the object pronouns "me/you/her/him/us/them" are, in some sense, the "unmarked" pronouns. (I only claim native knowledge of English as it is spoken in parts of the US). By this I mean that, in novel contexts, native speakers seem to prefer these to the subject pronouns "I/you/she/he/we/they." (Prescriptively, the subject pronoun is often preferred). For instance,

  1. The "one-word" answer to a question is the object pronoun. (Who went to the store? Us (natural language). We did (fine). *We.)

  2. Object pronouns show up in complex subjects, although this is prescriptively discouraged: "Me and John went to the party," "Us four are going to the store, are yall?"

  3. Object pronouns are usually used as replacements for names in non-sentence contexts, e.g. when making a scorepad or a diagram, one writes "us" and "them." (Note that in bridge one uses "we" and "they," and also that this sounds strange.)

In short, in spontaneous speech, I think of myself as "me," not as "I."

In French, it is the emphatic pronouns (moi/toi...) that play all of the above roles. (Interestingly, it is prescriptively correct in French to use the emphatic pronoun in a complex subject, rather than the subject pronoun).

It is interesting that both languages have what seems to be a default set of pronouns for novel circumstances. I can guess a few reasons for this:

  • This is a coincidence.

  • This is a borrowing from French to English.

  • This is left over from the proto-Indo-European pronoun structure.

  • there is a linguistic universal for "default pronouns." In other words, a language learner learns one set of pronouns as fundamental "names" for people; then, the other pronouns are learned only in specific grammatical contexts.

What I like about this last theory is that it explains why children tend to start out using the "John and me went" construction in spite of the heavy prescriptive norm against it, and also why adults who learn the prescriptive rule tend to overgeneralize it to "with John and I."

Is there good cross-linguistic evidence for a "default" set of personal pronouns within a language, or is this phenomenon in English and French better explained by one of the simpler explanations?

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    Essentially both French and English 'default' pronoun sets are the product of the loss of case. If there's no case to mark, there's no reason for paradigms for anything but s/p and occasionally m/f. Since French still has gender, those paradigms are more complex than English paradigms, which are essentially linear.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 0:41
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    The system of English pronouns is evolving in the direction of becoming more and more simple, note the relatively recent disappearance of 'thou/thee', the loss of subject pronoun 'ye' and the usage of its original object form 'you' for both subjects and objects now. That looks like a general tendency, and the phenomenon you describe in your question can well be one of its results. Besides, French doesn't seem to have much influence on English for several centuries already.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 3:48
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    @Lucas: We can read the question as hunter observing two languages and wanting to know about a similar aspect of "all languages generally", and whether anybody has extracted any universals from them the usual way. Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 15:27
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    See: Emonds, J. "Grammatically deviant prestige dialect constructions." in A Festschift for Sol Saporta. ed. by M. Brame, H. Contreras and F. Newmeyer. Seattle: Noit Amrofer, 1985. Emonds' argument is that because English has effectively lost a surface case system, the "subject pronoun" forms only appear when they get their case assigned directly from an adjacent verb. Thus "me and John went" is correct, because case assignment isn't passed through the "and", which is the head of that phrase, down to "me" (which is the unmarked 1sg pronoun) and "John". French is an even clearer example.
    – librik
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 23:17
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    I think it has something to do with the fact that object pronouns are stressed more often than subject pronouns in Eng and Fr. In turn, this seems related to the fact that subjects are mandatory in Eng and Fr. In Spanish, however, where subjects can be dropped, "yo" (I) is often stressed, and thus (I think) usually used in these default situations.
    – dainichi
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 6:16

1 Answer 1


Part of the/a explanation to the question is provided in librik's comment and part in Jlawler's comment. The disappearance of morphological case from English and French has led to the divergence of the two groups of pronouns. Languages with rich case systems do not have the division, e.g. German.

The insight that I think can be added is that the marked forms (I, he, she, they) appear obligatorily when they constitute the entire subject of an overt finite verb. Adjacency in a strict sense is not necessary, e.g.

 a. He certainly knows vs. *Him certainly knows.

That the finite verb is the key component is perhaps most visible in cases of gapping. Gapping allows both the marked and unmarked pronoun:

 b. He called her, and she/her __ him vs. *He called her, and her called him.

Prescriptive grammar has resulted in a situation that allows both forms in this case. The importance of the finite verb is also quite clear in answer fragments, as illustrated with the example in the question and shown here further:

 c. Who did it?  - Me vs. *I vs. I did. 

The verb in question must be finite. With a nonfinite verb form, the unmarked form of the pronouns is obligatory:

 d. For him to leave... vs. *For he to leave...

 e. Him leaving was unfortunate vs. *He leaving was unfortunate. 

The fact that it is possible to describe exactly when the marked form must appear (i.e. when it is the entire subject of an overt finite verb) helps narrow in on the best approach to a comprehensive explanation.

I therefore think one can be confident about the following statements:

  1. It is not a conincidence. There are concrete observable criteria that can be acknowledged for predicting when the division between the two pronoun classes might occur: loss of case and cooccurrence with a finite verb.

  2. The phenomenon exists in both French and English because these two languages satisfy the two criteria mentioned (mainly loss of case). Whether the phenomenon is borrowed from French into English is unclear, but influence does seem likely.

  3. That the phenomenon is left over from Proto-Indo-European is doubtful, since Indo-European languages with rich case systems do not have the division.

  4. That the phenomenon is a linguistic universal (one set of pronouns for names of people and one set of pronouns in special contexts) is unlikely, since languages with rich case systems do not have it.

I think the unmarked forms of the pronouns survive in their quite particlar context (as the entire subject of an overt finite verb) because this context occurs very frequently in language, i.e. subject + finite verb, more frequently than perhaps any other syntactic construction.

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