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Red Pen Diaries: Hello, It's Me
My mother and sister seem to take more pleasure than the average bear in saying things like, "It was he" and "This is she."
Actually, the average bear takes NO pleasure in saying such things because the average bear doesn't say them; the average bear says, "It was him" and "You got 'er."
Yes, my friends, we're now sufficiently comfortable with each other to discuss the sensitive issue of nominative pronouns and linking verbs. Greater minds than mine have trod this territory, including Grammar Girl, who says:
The traditional grammar rule states when a pronoun follows a linking verb, such as "is," it should be in the subject case. That means it is correct to say, "It is I," and "It was he who dropped the phone in shock when Jodie answered, 'This is she.'" Linking verbs are words like "is," "was," "were," "appear" and "seem," which don't describe an action so much as describe a state of being. When pronouns follow these non-action verbs, you use the subject pronouns such as "I," "she," "he," "they" and "we."G. Girl then cites these examples:
- Who called Jodie? It was he.
- Who told you about it? It was I.
- Who had the phone conversation? It must have been they.
- Who cares? It is we.
Adhering to this convention, I recently found myself writing, "If I were she, I'd make an exception." I was e-mailing a fellow smarty-pants who wouldn't have thought twice about the construction, but I still felt that wormy sensation I get when what I'm saying sounds pretentious, no matter how correct. (The average unpretentious bear would have written, "If I were her, I'd make an exception.") And I will confess that I sometimes make the technically wrong but conversationally right choice under these circumstances. Because sometimes, the technically right choice — "It is I," for instance, instead of "It's me" — makes you sound like the Scarlet Pimpernel.
As you've likely gathered, I wholeheartedly decry the degradation of the language and the dumbing-down of America. But if I'm speaking to someone who may be grammatically challenged, I tend toward getting it wrong for the greater right — which is connecting with the person I'm speaking to, not distancing myself by sounding like I come from a galaxy far, far away (one where they talk all fancy like).
Consistency is a linchpin of my work in branding (and copyediting). But I see Emerson's point that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
Don Huntington, editor in chief of 110° Magazine (covering California's Contra Costa County) and one of our many valued readers, opines: "The principle we need to acknowledge, however reluctantly, is that a lot of things are acceptable in normal conversation that we wouldn't use in our writing. I wouldn't use 'I' in 'Don't bother looking for a culprit; it was me,' even in my magazine. The nominative 'I' in that case just seems wrong to the modern ear."
Likewise, the Los Angeles Times reader who lambasted the publication for having titled a story "Now it's just him and the refugees" was informed:
The language is evolving. And those hard and fast rules that were taught in school sometimes become a little squishy. Most grammarians agree that this is one of those rules. In "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage," author Bryan A. Garner writes: "Generally, of course, the nominative pronoun is the complement of a linking verb: 'This is she,' 'It was he.' But 'it is me' and 'it's me' are fully acceptable, especially in informal contexts." To make his point Garner quotes Norman Lewis' "Better English": "Both forms, 'It is I' and 'It is me,' are correct — one by virtue of grammatical rule, the other by virtue of common educated usage."Grammar Girl says of "It is I," "Most other grammarians agree that unless you're answering the phone for the English department at the University of Chicago or responding to a Supreme Court judge, it's OK to use what sounds right and therefore, 'That's me' is an acceptable answer."
I can easily imagine a member of my family saying, "It was he" or "It was I," possibly even the patently awkward "It must have been they" or "It is we." But I can't see any of them uttering, "Woe is I."
Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, makes it clear where she stands in titling her bestselling 1996 book "Woe Is I" and subtitling it "The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English." The Grammar Myths section of her Grammarphobia.com is introduced thus: "The house of grammar has many rooms, and some of them are haunted. Despite the best efforts of grammatical exorcists, the ghosts of dead rules and the spirits of imaginary taboos are still rattling and thumping about the old place." Scroll down and you'll find the "tombstone" of "Use It is I, not It is me." Inscribed there is the epitaph: "It's OK to use It is me, That's him, It's her, and similar constructions, instead of using the grammatically correct but more stuffy It is I, That's he, and It's she."
I can only conclude that there's nothing wrong with being right. It's just that sometimes, in life as in branding, it's better to be unstuffy than right.
You'll be spending time with family soon, right? Surely someone will say something grammatically cringeworthy. As befits the season, please share in the comments below.