Is it I or is it me?

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Harry Potter fans might answer this clearly as all characters in J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter series say ‘It is I’ – something my linguistic mind always stumbles over for a brief second when reading it.  A student in one of my classes also recently asked about this.

Modern English does not have a case system, like e.g. German. The functions of subject and object in a sentence are determined by word order. Thus in the sentence – The cat is chasing the dog – who chases who(m) is clearly determined by the position of the two noun phrases ‘the cat’ and ‘the dog’. If I change the position of the noun phrases and say – The dog is chasing the cat – the situation changes dramatically from the perspective of the cat.

In German, e.g., which has a case system, we could have something like Den Hund jagte die Katze. The subject would be the cat even though it is behind the verb. This is possible because the article has changed into the so-called accusative case: from der (nominative der Hund) to den. The sentence would not be a standard way of stating the fact, but would express a special emphasis on den Hund (the dog).  The underlying meaning though – who chases who(m) – would be the same as in Die Katze jagte den Hund.

In English, we could theoretically reverse subject and object without losing the subject object interpretation by saying: The dog the cat chased. But I believe only Yoda of Star Wars speaks this way; for an English speaker this would be an awkward utterance. Nevertheless, semantically it is still comprehensible; probably because the one essential regularity of English syntax is preserved: the subject comes before the verb.

There is one area, though, in which English (still) has a case system, i.e. where words change morphologically in respect to their function in a sentence: in its pronoun system. Here we find morphological changes from nominative (subject) to accusative/dative *. I (subject) e.g. turns to ME (accusative/dative? see footnote * below) when whoever is denoted is not the agent of the action, but on the receiving end of an activity, or in grammatical terms: in the object position of the sentence.

The same goes for the other pronouns. Thus we have:

He gave the book to me, I gave the book to her and she gave it to him. We gave the books to them, and they gave them back to us.

So an argument for ME instead of I in the disputed sentence It’s ME/I would be: In the utterance It is X, X is in object position, it is in subject position. If the X is expressed in the first person singular pronoun, the ‘correct’ form should be It is me (or rather: It’s me), not It is I. IT is only a dummy subject; in linguistic terms: the structural or functional subject of the sentence. The person denoted by the pronoun is the logical subject, but not in subject position. According to grammatical agreement, the pronoun in object position takes the respective object form as it still exists in the English pronoun system.

I agree that you could argue: the verb BE usually is followed by a complement and not an object. So we have sentences like I am blue, in a hurry, in time, in high spirits, on a train, big, fat, beautiful etc. Thus BE is followed either by an adjective or an adverbial of time or place (a prepositional phrase). So we have as the perhaps most common structure of the verb BE: subject (noun phrase) + BE + complement (usually a Prep Phrase or an adjective).

What about sentences in which the subject is IT? It is late. It is Sunday. It is the postman. In the latter example we have a noun phrase as a complement of BE. But does it really  make sense to talk of a complement structure here when the IT is only a structural subject with no real semantic value? What is this IT the postman is the complement of?

(Some) proponents of the It is I version argue in reference to the above: the person denoted by the pronoun is not an object, as sentences with BE are decribed as complement structures and – as the argument in favour of /I/ continues – complement structures TAKE THE NOMINATIVE CASE. I must admit that I do not understand this statement for English as English doesn’t have ‘case’. To come back to our postman from the example above: It is the postman. The postman is the postman is the postman: a noun phrase in object position (or any position) does not change its form unless it is a pronoun. And if we did substitute the postman with a pronoun, I would bet in most, if not all cases, people would say: It’s HIM not It’s HE. And if the postman is not a postman but a woman we most likely in the majority would say: It’s HER not It’s SHE (and It’s them, us, you – not It’s they, or we). But the proponents of: ‘The complement of BE takes nominative case’ might indeed say those things, I do not know.

Further support for the claim ‘the complement takes normative case’ might be found in other languages related to English and that (still) have a case system. (Not that I really believe one language can be described by using another one, just for comparisons’s sake). To take the example of German: a sentence similar to It is I/ME would be Ich bin’s (?I it is), or the other way around: Es bin ich (nobody would say that, but for the sake of comparison let’s assume they would.) Hier, indeed, no German speaker would say Es ist mich (or Mich ist es instead of Ich bin es). However, the whole sentence structure is different in German in that the ES (corresponding to IT) is not in (dummy) subject position, but functions as object of the sentence as can be seen in the fact the the verb (SEIN=BE) agrees with ICH and not with ES. In other words, German behaves differently when complementing SEIN/BE.

To claim that ‘if the complement of a sentence with BE is a noun phrase, this noun phrase should be in the nominative case’ in my opinion does not qualify as an observed regularity of the English system, but is rather circular. Saying the correct form is IT IS I and not IT IS ME, because the complement of BE takes nominative case is like saying: IT IS I because IT IS I.

Frankly, I don’t really think it is THAT important, and it is not about: who is right. However, in the above example, as I described in the beginning, to me IT IS I really sounds wrong and I wanted to find out if it is possible to give an explanation coherent with the regularities of the English language system to make it right. So far I haven’t.

From a linguistic point of view, language is a democratic system. It can be used by everybody and what the majority says is what the linguist describes. Deviations are dubbed ‘dialect features’ or ‘alternative versions’.

Rules or regularities are necessary for the system to function; we can’t all just speak as we like if we want to be understood. But there is a lot of variation and flexibility, and if someone prefers IT IS I instead of IT IS ME, so be it.

 

*There is only one object form in English; what shall we call it? In the sentence Give the book to him grammars of other languages would call the object function ‘dative’. He talked to her.…again (perhaps) ‘dative’.The dog chased HIM (accusative). (The terms are borrowed from case languages; the distinction is not crucial for English in respect to form.)

 

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