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Is it I or me?

John Buckley wrote yesterday, taking exception to the clause, “[t]he person behind Dr. Goodword is me . . . ” using me instead of I. He finds it difficult himself to say, “It is me,” too, preferring, “It is I.” I pointed out that the majority of English speakers use the latter and that phrases like, “It is I,” are generally learned in school rather than in the normal process of language acquisition. He was unimpressed.

I wrote on a related subject for the alphaDictionary Reference Shelf in my article “Are You and I You and Me?” That article dealt with the misuse of the subjective (nominative) form of I in conjunctive phrases like waiting for you and I, places where we would never say *waiting for I. The problem in both cases is that English has lost its cases, its case system, except for a few fragments in the pronominal system:

Subject
Object
I me
he him
she her
we us
they them

This outdated subjective-objective case distinction has already been lost by you and it, which have been omitted in the table above.

Many languages, like German, Greek, and Russian, distinguish the subjects and objects of verbs by different endings placed on the nouns with those functions. In Russian, which I taught for 37 years, Ivan videl Borisa means ”Ivan saw Boris” while “Boris saw Ivan” is Boris videl Ivana. Notice that whichever noun serves as the direct object has a distinct ending -a. The nominative (subjective) case for these nouns is zero, nothing, no ending.

The interesting advantage of a case system is that word order doesn’t matter. The following sentences all mean the same:

  • Ivan videl Borisa
  • Borisa videl Ivan
  • Ivan Borisa videl
  • Videl Borisa Ivan

There is a big difference between Ivan saw Boris and Boris saw Ivan in English. That is because the subject is identified and distinguished from the object in English by its appearance before the verb: the subject is the noun before the verb, the object is the first noun after the verb (basically; there are variations).

Objects also occur after parts of speech other than verbs. The article I mentioned above dealt with pronouns after prepositions. Prepositions also “govern” objects, so the noun or noun phrase after a preposition must be in the objective case. However, the English case system is on its last leg: no nouns distinguish subjects from objects, it and you do not distinguish it, and we are losing our grasp of it in the last remaining pronouns. That is why we don’t wince when we say things like for John and I and between you and I.

So why do we say, It is me rather than It is I? Well, it is something else we borrowed from the French, who also say c’est moi “it is me” and not c’est je. French has lost the case system, too, but, like English, has retained a few pronouns with the distinction between the nominative (subject) and accusative (object) cases. So what to do with them?

Since word order is as important in French as it is in English, French decided that it was the position after the verb that is important, not the object function. To be an object, a noun or pronoun must represent the object the that action of the verb is carried out on, done to. In the sentence, The man bit the dog, dog is the object of bit because it is the object of the biting, not the biter, which is the subject, in this case, the man.

French and English no longer have case systems to the concept of case forms paralleling the functions of subject and object are out the window. In these languages now it is the position after the verb—any verb—that is critical. Even though be does not take a direct object (it simply indicates the time at which something occurs, past, present, or future), the “objective” form of the pronoun is used.

English does not have an Academy of Sciences to arbitrarily decide what is grammatical or not, so I look for consistency. I don’t like an historical because we don’t say an hypothetical, an hippopotamus, or an harangue. (A is supposed to become an if the first syllable of a word beginning on H is unaccented.)

I wouldn’t say that an historical is an ungrammatical phrase but it is inconsistent and grammar is, above all, a set of (relatively) consistent rules that guides our speech. That consistency is crucial to understanding since, if I used one set of rules and you, another, we would not be able to communicate. Even if the rules are slightly different, as are the rules of rural Southern grammar and urban Northern grammar in the US, the results are disturbing, leading us to ridicule each other over the difference.

Using me after ALL verbs is consistent. It is not consistent with a case system because English no longer has a case system but within English itself, it does show a consistent pattern and hence is preferable to It is I.

11 Responses to “Is it I or me?”

  1. Stargzer Says:

    Dr. Goodword said:

    “I don’t like an historical because we don’t say an hypothetical, an hippopotamus, or an harangue. (A is supposed to become an if the first syllable of a word beginning on H is unaccented.)”

    It’s me again! ;-)

    Actually, I sometimes use “an historical” if I get lazy or hurried and pronounce it “an ‘istorical” with a silent “h.”

  2. rbeard Says:

    Larry,

    It is one thing if you say it automatically; that means that you are applying the a ~ an rule when the [h] isn’t there. This is the way grammatical rules operate, unconsciously. It is another altogether when we become conscious of the conflict and do it because we are worried about speaking English the right way.

    “An historical” in most instances in the US is the result of the impact editors have on the way we write.

  3. Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira Says:

    French, as well as other Romance languages, distinguishes between accusative and dative in the third person singular and plural:

    nominative accusative dative
    je me me
    tu te te
    il le lui
    elle la lui
    nous nous nous
    vous vous vous
    ils/elles les leur

    Macedonian, not having cases, uses clitics, which makes word order rather free (not as free as Russian, but much freer than English):

    Ivan go vidi na Boris.
    Na Boris Ivan go vidi.
    Na Boris go vidi Ivan.

    In which go is the clitic that agrees with Ivan, a masculine noun, and na introduces the direct object, when determined. Not very different from Spanish

    Ivan vio a Boris.
    A Boris vio Ivan.
    A Boris Ivan vio.

    and Romanian

    Ivan l-a vazut pe Boris.
    Pe Boris l-a vazut Ivan.
    Pe Boris Ivan l-a vazut.

    In which a (in Spanish) and pe (in Romanian) introduce the direct object, which must be determined, as in Macedonian.

  4. сноуборд Says:

    сноуборд it would be interesting ;)

  5. rbeard Says:

    I have never discussed English words borrowed by other languages. Maybe I will give some thought to that. My favorites so far have been those words whose English plural is ignored by foreign languages that add their own plural like джинсы [jins-y] “jeans”. The -y is the Russian plural. Since Russian also pluralizes objects with mirror-image parts (glasses, scissors, pants), “jeans” must be plural. However, -s is not a plural marker in Russian, so it is ignored. Keks-y “crackers” based on English “cake” is another example.

  6. RaymonWazerri Says:

    Hey,
    I love what you’e doing!
    Don’t ever change and best of luck.

    Raymon W.

  7. 1365 Buena Vista Road Says:

    I really love to say “It is I,” and I always correct people.

  8. rbeard Says:

    You would enjoy talking with my wife.

  9. Charlie Says:

    Hi…interesting chat!
    What would you say about ‘That is me’? (eg when looking at a picture of yourself) Is the ‘me’ grammatically correct? Or just consistent…’That is I’ sounds odder than ‘It is I’ …even though I always say it to be grammatically correct.
    Charlie

  10. Jim Says:

    What about Latin? Almost all of English grammar mirrors in some way the dead old tongue, and in this case what would matter is the declension of the noun.

    Latin declines nouns thusly:

    Nominative (subject)
    Genitive (possessory)
    Dative (indirect object)
    Accusative (direct object, usually involving motion “ad infinitum”)
    Ablative (various prepositional phrases)

    What you have here in “it is I” is a predicate nominative.

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