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<   No. 2039   2008-08-26   >

Comic #2039

1 Long Tom: We should be seein' the Grey Seer. If anybody be knowin' where may be the key, it may be he.
2 Ponsonby: ... it may be...?
3 Long Tom: Maybe.
4 Ponsonby: Is there any chance at all that this Grey Seer can decline pronouns properly?

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Pronouns are words that substitute for other nouns, usually when the meaning can be inferred from context. For example:

The book, give it to me.
Here "it" really means "the book", so "it" is a pronoun. Also, the word "me" is shorthand for "the person saying this sentence", or "David", or whoever else might actually be saying it. So "me" is a pronoun. Another example:
If anybody knows where the key may be, it may be him.
Here, "him" refers to the Grey Seer, so "him" is a pronoun. But you'll notice that in the comic, Captain Long Tom Short actually said, "it may be he." Which is not quite right, although we can tell immediately what he's trying to say.

Think about it for a second. "Him" and "he" are both pronouns, that can refer to some Grey Seer (who is presumably male, otherwise he'd be a "she" or a "her"). Why are there two different words to refer to what is essentially the same thing?

The answer is that "he" and "him" are two different declensions of the same pronoun - different forms of the same word which are used in different circumstances. The difference is that "he" is used when "he" is doing something - or in grammatical terms, when "he" is the subject of the sentence. And "him" is used when "he" is having something done to "him" - when "he" is the object of the sentence. Examples:

He ate the chicken.
The tiger ate him.
Notice the difference. In the first case "he" is the one doing the eating; in the second case, "he" is the one being eaten. Exactly analagous cases occur for the pronouns "she", "I", "we", and "they":
She ate the chicken.
The tiger ate her.

I ate the chicken.
The tiger ate me.

We ate the chicken.
The tiger ate us.

They ate the chicken.
The tiger ate them.

In Engish, the situation is quite simple, since our pronouns have at most two different declensions. There's even a pronoun with only one declension:
You ate the chicken.
The tiger ate you.
In other languages there are further declensions to worry about. For example in Italian there is an additional word for "he", which is used for indirect objects. The easiest way to see this difference is with an example:
Lui chiama Maria. (He calls Maria.)
Maria lo chiama. (Maria calls him.)
Maria gli scrive. (Maria writes to him.)
Note the difference in the last two there. Maria is actually calling him, but she's not literally writing him - what she's writing is a letter, a letter to him. In English that difference is not important, and we use "him" in both cases. But in Italian it's an important distinction, meriting a completely different pronoun declension. And the act of choosing the right declension of a pronoun for the situation is known as declining the pronoun.
Okay, I admit it, grammar is not one of my strongest subjects. Rather than explain what I got wrong here, let me just quote some of the e-mails I received. From Seumus Macdonald:
In the clause, 'it may be he', "he" is actually quite correct. Since 'it may be he' is a subordinate clause, "may be" is a subjunctive form of the verb 'to be', and is here functioning as a copulative, as in "X is Y", so that one would normally expect both X and Y to be in the nominative case. Therefore, 'he' is the right declension of the pronoun, and Captain Long Tom Short is speaking very properly, even if it sounds a little awkward.
From Aaron Walker:
Actually, in this case "he" is the predicate nominative and "he" is more correct than "him".

From David Luchin:
I do not envy you the volume of correspondence you're going to have pointing out that because "to be" takes an object nominative, "It may be he" is in fact correct.
From Joseph "Chepe" Lockett:
Actually, Captain Long Tom Short is correct (at least in declension) when he says, "If anybody be knowin' where may be the key, it may be he."

"It" and "he" should both be in the nominative/subject case (technically, a "declension" is a collection of different noun formations, known as "cases"). "It" is, obviously, the subject. But "he" is a predicate nominative - a renaming or restatement of the subject, separated by a form of the verb "to be." Since it's identical to the subject, it takes the same case.

The classic case of a subjective pronoun as a predicate nominative is the rather Victorian-sounding statement, "It is I." Because English speakers get confused about noun cases easily, that's generally been corrupted to "It is me." It's a similar problem to the one facing the construction, "James is taller than I [am]," which usually gets corrupted these days to "James is taller than me."

From Dave Pooser:
In your discussion of declension of pronouns, I think you missed the fact that the Royal Navy is mistaken here. The exception to your rules of declension is that the nominative form of the pronoun is used when the verb is "to be." Thus:

"Who is it?"
"It is I."

To my ear, at least, "it may be he" rings more true than "it may be him;" in this case the predicate nominative is "he."

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