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Why “Them Tools” Is Wrong

Grace wrote and asked me to settle a dispute at work about using them or those in specific ways in sentences. Here are Grace's examples:

1. A. The workman left them tools in the garage.
    B. The workman left those tools in the garage.

 2. A. Please take them trash bins to the curb.
     B. Please take those trash bins to the curb.

Grace is certain she is correct in choosing the B examples, but she cannot explain why.

Indeed, Grace is correct in saying "those tools" and "those bins." Those is an adjective (a describing word), and it is used correctly before a noun (a naming word) to answer the question "Which ones?" Which bins? Those bins.

Them is not an adjective–it is a pronoun (a word that stands for a noun). In standard English, them cannot be used before a noun to describe it. However, in nonstandard English, them is used that way.

Grammatically speaking, using "them tools" rather than "those tools" is like using "him tools" rather than "his tools." Him, like them, can only be used correctly as a pronoun, but his is both a pronoun and an adjective.

Similarly, writing "them trash bins" is like writing "me trash bins" instead of "my trash bins." Me, like them, is a pronoun, whereas my is an adjective.  

Them is an object pronoun, as are these words: me, you, him, her, it, us. Although these pronouns can't be used in standard English to describe a noun, they can stand alone. For example, these sentences are correct:

The workman left them in the garage.
Please take them to the curb.

Of course, in the sentences above, readers and listeners need to know what them stands for, as they would in these examples:

If you are looking for the tools, the workman left them in the garage.
If you want to handle the trash bins for me, please take them to the curb.

In business communication, standard English is what everyone wants and expects. That's why Grace cringes when she hears a coworker say "them tools."

I hope Grace can now explain why her sentence choices are correct. "Those tools" is standard English. "Them tools" is nonstandard for the reasons above.

Because communication is so important to job and career success, I hope Grace can tactfully persuade her coworkers to use standard English when speaking and writing at work.

What is your view?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “Why “Them Tools” Is Wrong”

  • Following formal rules of any kind is both a reliable and difficult to fake way of showing that you care about what you do. To take a parallel example: there have been many ways of looking smart over the ages, but they’ve all had one thing in common, which is the adherence to rules e.g. tie your tie close to the collar, or polish your boots in the army, or wear a bearskin hat in the Queen’s Guard. Following the right rules in the right situation also shows you really know what is going on.

    Sometimes, of course, this codification is really self-sustaining. Take the fashion of a hundred years ago or more. The tiny differences in the ‘correct’ clothes to be worn at different times of day and for different occasions were little more than a show for the sake of show. To take an example: in practical terms, changing for dinner is entirely unnecessary.

    Grammar can be the same – even very competent, fluent writers will break small rules here and there, and only ‘peevologists’ set signficant store by these transgressions.

    However, without a shared set of grammatical rules, anything more than rudimentary communication is impossible. And though using ‘them’ rather than ‘those’ is perfectly straightforward to understand, it can still hinder communication by being distracting to those who are familiar with the proper usage. And it can hurt the case of whoever is communicating, as there is a widely-held association between gross grammatical errors and lack of expertise.

    So I think focusing on this level of basic grammatical competence is as essential as learning how to tie a tie in the world of business (and not as unnecessary as knowing what to wear when playing croquet with the King).

  • Reading the sentences with “them” used as an adjective made me think of the Beverly Hillbillies. Reading the correct sentences made me think of Miss Hathaway. In terms of communication as well as clothing (and food choices), I would much rather spend time with Miss H!

  • Hi, Val. I admit having to check Wikipedia to be reminded of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” It appears that Miss Hathaway was the cultured secretary. Of course, she would never use “them” incorrectly, as the hillbillies no doubt did.

    Thanks for a blast from the past!


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