Q: Populists often stress democratic values by invoking the phrase “we the people,” but lately they’ve taken to using it not just as a subject but as an object as well. Thus: “We must never allow [insert villain] to trample on we the people!”
A: “We the people” is a subject; “us the people” is an object. Here’s how they look in sentences:
“We, the people, elect our leaders. Our leaders are elected by us, the people.”
In both of those noun phrases, “the people” is an appositive. It identifies or explains the preceding noun or pronoun by using a different term (like the name in “My son, John”).
We’ve written on the blog before about appositives, which are sometimes surrounded by commas, as in our examples above.
An appositive never changes the case (that is, subject or object) of the pronoun it follows. That’s why the entire phrase “we the people” is always a subject and “us the people” is always an object.
The words “we the people” resonate with Americans because they introduce the preamble to the Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
If ever a phrase deserved proper handling, it’s “we the people.”
It’s demeaned when misused as a grammatical object (as in, “Don’t trample on we the people!”).
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