English language Uncategorized

A slothful usage?

Q: I am concerned about the assertions on your Grammar Myths page that the objective case is acceptable in informal English for sentences like “It is me” or “Who’s the package for?” Is intellectual laziness so dominant that those of us able to follow a simple rule will be required to abandon the nominative case, while those who cannot or will not write and speak properly will be rewarded for their sloth?

A: Like it or not, those two pronoun usages, once strongly resisted, are slipping into standard English. In conversation and informal writing, it’s OK to use “me” after forms of the verb “be,” and “who” instead of “whom” at the beginning of a sentence. I’m not the arbiter of what’s acceptable and what’s not – I’m just reporting what linguists, lexicographers, and usage experts are saying these days.

In the case of “It is me” vs. “It is I,” grammarians have been arguing for one side or the other since at least the early 1700s. What apparently set them off was Sir Richard Steele’s use of “It is not me” in the Spectator in 1712.

For some years, two camps battled over the issue until the “It is I” faction won around the late 18th century (possibly influenced by the Latin pattern of using the nominative). So the “It is I” nominative pattern has been considered the norm in English grammar for most of the last 200 years, although both constructions have been (and still are) common among the actual users of the language.

In our day, the objective is in the ascendant and is now considered an acceptable informal usage, according to the entries for “me” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and other references. The nominative pattern (“It is I”) is generally used in formal English, but the objective (“It is me”) is universally and legitimately used in less formal writing and speech.

It’s hard to imagine a robbery victim, even William F. Buckley Jr., spying his assailants and shouting to the police: “It is they! It is they!” And it’s hard to imagine a startled District Attorney, on being informed that Mr. Buckley was robbed, saying, “Whom?” (Actually, Noah Webster himself suggested that “whom” would one day fall out of use.)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has a theory about all this: “The strongest force operating in favor of ‘it is me’ is probably that of word position: the pronoun after ‘is’ is in the usual position for a direct object, and the objective case feels right in that position. It is probably just as simple as that – we find the strength of word order at work on initial ‘whom’ also, turning it frequently into ‘who,’ even when it is an object in its clause – but early grammarians knew nothing of the power of word order in English, and they had to find other explanations.”

I hope this makes “it is me” and similar constructions seem less slothful.

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