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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.


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Friday December 24th 2010, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
While urging a relaxation of grammatical rigidities, you tossed off the construction, "distancing myself by sounding like I come from a galaxy far, far away." Miss Grundy would have said "sounding as if ..." but you ear told you that most people don't talk that way. Carry on!
Friday December 24th 2010, 10:03 AM
Comment by: Marty E. (Simpsonville, SC)
ah yes, it is I who is sounding as if she is loving this discussion! (happy noises in the background...)
Friday December 24th 2010, 11:01 AM
Comment by: Katharine S. (Houston, TX)
My inner hobgoblin thanks you for a most enlightening and entertaining article. We will leave our formal English at the door while we spend time with some of our nearest and dearest. Merry Yuletide, y'all.
Friday December 24th 2010, 12:30 PM
Comment by: Peggy C. (San Diego, CA)
Belly laughs abound this Christmas Eve morning! I thank you!
Friday December 24th 2010, 12:36 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I fully agree. I was raised being required to answer the phone using the subject forms after linking verbs and was quite embarrassed when the caller was one of my friends! LOL

I do wonder if there isn't a logic to the use of the object form. The Frency don't say, "C'est je." They say, "C'est moi." They have that reflexive form. We have 'myself' which sounds as pedantic to my ear as 'I' after 'is'.

I loved the use of 'were' after the 'if'. Most would say, "If I was her..." At least that's what I've often heard and seen written. I cringe at that, desirous as I am to preserve the subjunctive.

But since we lack a non-pendantic way of being non-pedantic, can we not just settle on 'It's me' being correct in conversation?

I wonder what other languages do?
Friday December 24th 2010, 1:36 PM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
I'm going to print out this charming column to show to a friend of mine! A third friend of ours asked us to review an entry for his blog, and there was lively discussion around issues that, as it turned out, arose from my friend's unfamiliarity with blogs and the decidedly informal style that is more appropriate to them than to the writing of, say, dissertations. (My friend is an English teacher.)

The references to the evolution of language, and the "correctness" of different styles of language according to context, may help her "get it."

Thanks!

(and Merry Christmas to you and yours!)
Friday December 24th 2010, 3:27 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the reminder, Sue! Merry Christmas to all of you who post here!
Friday December 24th 2010, 6:03 PM
Comment by: Slobodan D. (Rijeka Croatia)
Having spent my childhood and boyhood in the U.S. (Youngstown, O and Pittsburgh, Pa., I often do translations of texts by Croatian and/or Serbian writers, hence I strive to employ the same free flowing style of the original texts by using non-pedantic forms, such as "it's me". I am therefore often criticized by ostentatious and pretentious English teachers and redactors for my "incorrect use of nominative pronouns and linking verbs". Thanks for accentuating Emerson's point that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
I wish you all a merry Xmas and happy New Year!

Slobodan (aka Fred D.
Friday December 24th 2010, 6:05 PM
Comment by: Kathleen C.
Does Queen Elizabeth answer the phone: "It is we"?

As a lawyer who can't afford to sound snooty, at least to my clients, I ditch the pronoun and answer the phone: "This is Kathleen." Thank heaven English nouns don't have subjective and objective forms!

Turns out, it's usually pretty easy to switch a sentence around to sound both correct and comfortable. For instance, given G. Girl's examples, it seems both easier and more effective to use these responses:

Who called Jodie? He did.
Who told you about it? I did.
Who had the phone conversation? They must have.
Who cares? We care.

And I'm so glad we care -- all of us who wrote and read this article! Thanks!
Friday December 24th 2010, 9:05 PM
Comment by: mac
I'm the one. I did it. Here I am. all correct? why not just reconstruct one's sentence so that all the "It is I, It is me" argument goes up in smoke . . . the language loses a bit of the flex we're always on about. hardly more than a linguistic mosquito bite.
Friday December 24th 2010, 10:20 PM
Comment by: Vivien D. (Sidney Canada)
I still find that most of the examples you quote as being acceptable "grate on the ear".

A fairly simple way to show which expression would be grammatically correct is to "turn the phrase around". For example: "It was I. I killed cock robin. You should punish me not him. He is innocent
"

(And by the way, "You quote (verb) a strange example. It is not a quotation (noun) I fully comprehend.")
Sunday December 26th 2010, 1:13 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Thank you for the lesson. My point of view is ; To speak correct English language is as difficult as to speak correct French language. So I say ; It is me , it is she, etc.
Tuesday December 28th 2010, 2:06 PM
Comment by: Sandra C. (Atlanta, GA)
I say, "This is she!" and "If I were her..." in a happy-go-lucky way rather than attempting to sound like William F. Buckley. Works for me.
Tuesday December 28th 2010, 5:33 PM
Comment by: Marty E. (Simpsonville, SC)
I agree with Sandra C...it's often in the delivery. (Poetry?)
Tuesday December 28th 2010, 6:27 PM
Comment by: Frances L. (Ballwin, MO)
Does anyone else remember "Hello, it's me! My name is Pinky Lee!"
Monday March 14th 2011, 10:30 PM
Comment by: Joan Seifried Taylor (Silver Spring, MD)
You use this quotation from Grammar Girl: "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."

Grammar Girl may have said this, but did she say she agrees with this stance? One might also wonder whether G.G. wouldn't be aware that the Supreme Court has no judges. At the Supreme Court level, they are Justices.

In my humble opinion [or "IMHO," for those who don't quite seem able to type (understand?) complete words or sentences], for one to say, "it's OK to use what sounds right" is tantamount to inviting a free-for-all. It gives free rein to say anything one pleases. Egad!

Perhaps this "use your own criteria" philosophy should extend to other areas as well - maybe social behavior. One might as well say, "It's OK to do what feels right." Sounds good until one tells it to a rapist.

How far shall this be allowed, even encouraged (by some) to go? To whom does the increasing bastardization of the English language "sound right," someone who crawled out from under a rock?

Is there anyone who will stand up for proper English usage? Yes. It is I.

Signed,
A product of Old School
Excellent English Education:

Clarkstown High School
New City, New York
Class of 1970

Cornell University
Class of 1974

ad nauseum!

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