The Grammarphobia Blog

Who caught the fish?

Q: My son’s English teacher taught the children this song: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5 / Once I caught a fish alive. / 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 / Then I let it go again.” Next, she showed them “Wh-“ questions, one being: “Who caught the fish? Me.” Is the object pronoun correct here? I would much prefer the nominative, “I did.”

A: A great many speakers of English – probably most – use “me” (an object pronoun) rather than “I” (a subject or nominative pronoun), even though the pronoun would appear to be the subject of a verbless sentence.

Here are some examples:

“Who’s there?” “Me.” (Alternatives using the nominative: “I” or “I am.”)

“I left early.” “Me too.” (Alternatives using the nominative: “I too” or “I did too.”)

“Did you flunk?” “Me?” (Alternative using the nominative: “I?”)

“Who has time?” “Me.” (Alternative using the nominative: “I” or “I have” or “I do.”)

A response of “I am” or “I did ” or “I have” isn’t at all unusual. But the use of “I” in a short reply without a verb seems unnaturally stiff to most speakers.

So we seldom hear a reply of “I” or “I too.” The use of “me” in these cases has become recognized as acceptable, even standard, English.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says this in a usage note:

Me is used in many constructions where strict grammarians prescribe I. This usage is not so much ungrammatical as indicative of the shrinking range of the nominative form.”

Merriam-Webster’s adds that “me began to replace I sometime around the 16th century largely because of the pressure of word order.”

I is now chiefly used as the subject of an immediately following verb,” M-W says. ”Me occurs in every other position: absolutely (who, me?), emphatically (me too), and after prepositions, conjunctions, and verbs, including be (come with me … you’re as big as me … it’s me).”

The note concludes that “almost all usage books recognize the legitimacy of me in these positions, especially in speech; some recommend I in formal and especially written contexts after be and after as and than when the first term of the comparison is the subject of a verb.”

My grammar book Woe Is I touches on this issue in discussing the use of “It’s me” instead of “It is I.” Here’s how I put it:

“In all but the most formal writing, some of the fussiest grammarians now accept It’s me. Most of us find the old usage awkward, though I must admit that I still use ‘This is she’ when somebody asks for me on the phone. Old habits die harder than old rules.”

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