Grammar Hammer: Them’s the Breaks

Is this a typical Saturday morning in your house? “I can’t find my sunglasses.” Your significant other begins rifling through what I like to call “the bottomless pit” – that place where stuff ends up in a pile during the course of the week. This pile might contain car keys, the week’s mail, a crumpled up grocery list, a post-it note with something really important on it, and probably a cough drop or a few loose tic-tacs. “Wait,” your significant other says, “are these them?” Or should it be, “Are these they?” What about, “Are these those?”

When to use “them”

“Them” is always used as a pronoun.

Example: Some friends of mine are planning a vacation to Italy. I want to go with them. “Them” is a simple pronoun acting as the object of the preposition “with.”

Example: I met with contractors last week about some potential home repairs. I told them that it would be at least a month before I’m ready to move forward. “Them” is a simple pronoun used as the object of the verb “told.”

When to use “they”

“They” is used as a pronoun.

Example: I heard the most amazing vocal group on the radio last week. I don’t think anyone can sing as well as they. Using “they” in this instance is grammatically correct as a subjective pronoun. If I were to extend that sentence, I would say, “I don’t think anyone can sing as well as they (the amazing vocal group) can sing.”

A good rule of thumb: Only the subject form of the pronoun should be used with modals (can, should, will, do, did, etc.).

*Grammatical Minefield!* Don’t fall prey to the temptation to use “they” with a singular pronoun in an effort to maintain gender neutrality. Fill in the blanks: “When a person gets _____ driver’s license, ____ should carry it at all times.” Grammatically speaking, using “they” (or “their”) in this instance is incorrect. “They” is a plural pronoun trying to reference a singular noun. Either make the nouns plural or use a singular pronoun.

When to use “those”

“Those” can act as a pronoun and an adjective.

Example: Where did you get those shoes? “Those” is used an adjective to describe which shoes I’m referring to.

Example: Those are amazing shoes! “Those” is used as a simple pronoun, acting as the subject of the sentence.

(Bonus points if you know the origin of the phrase “Them’s the breaks.”)

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