grammar - Which is correct: "If it were I" or "If it were me"?

21
2014-04
  • Jaydles

    I'm fairly sure it's the former, but it sounds even more stilted than the usual cases in which "I" is less common, but more correct.

  • Answers
  • Claudiu

    It's "if it were me", as opposed to "if I were it". Compare: "If I were him" sounds good, but "If I were he" does not. The first pronoun is in the nominative case, the last one in the accusative. Also, see this.

  • Tsuyoshi Ito

    As you stated in the question, “if it were me” is more common. I would use this form.

    However, which is correct seems to be a common topic of debate. See Wikipedia for an analogous question about whether “it is I” or “it is me” is correct. Using “me” is more common, but some grammarians consider using “I” is the correct form. I am pretty sure that those grammarians consider that “if it were I” is the correct form.

  • Fraser Orr

    Subjective pronouns are used in the subject of the sentence and following a linking verb (form of be): I, we, you, he, she, it, and they.

    "Were" is a linking verb; therefore, "If it were I."

  • Mechanical snail

    Okay, I'm actually writing a prescriptivist answer. Even if you are a prescriptivist, logic compels the choice of "If it were me".

    The supposed rule is that the object of a copulative verb, like be, takes the nominative case.

    Justifications for the rule

    Analogy with other languages

    In some other languages, a similar rule is observed. For example, in Spanish, ser tends to agree with whichever argument is a personal pronoun, which is nominative:

    Soy yo.
    am  I   "It's me."
    
    A  veces el       infierno somos   nosotros mismos.
    At times the.MASC hell     are.1PL we       selves
    

    But we're talking about English here.

    In fact, if you're analogizing with other languages, there's precedent in French:

    C' est moi.
    it is  me   "It's me."
    

    The copula means equality; swapping the arguments

    One common claim is that as a copula represents equality and equality is commutative, it should be possible to swap the arguments while preserving grammatical structure. That is, "I was the captain." and *"The captain was I." are supposedly essentially equivalent, and so the pronoun must be "I" in both cases.

    This argument is bogus because most of the time, the copula is not a statement of equality. While you occasionally see sentences like "Rodentia is the rodent family" that are asserting the equality of two arguments, the copula is mainly used to establish subset relationships—

    Cats are carnivorous mammals commonly kept as pets.

    —or to attach a description (adjective) to a noun, asserting that the noun has a specific quality—

    Cats are fluffy.

    In the "subset" usage, reversing the arguments gives a semantically false result: "Carnivorous mammals commonly kept as pets are cats." (counterexample: my friend's dog is not a cat). And it doesn't even make sense for an adjective to be the subject: *"Fluffy are cats".

    Similarly, the arguments may not even agree in number. Reversing "The Obamas are a family" to *"A family are the Obamas" is absurd.

    Since the arguments of a copula are not semantically or grammatically interchangeable in general, there is no reason to insist on symmetry when its arguments happen to be personal pronouns.

    Not parsimonious

    Go by parsimony. The supposed rule is an exception to the general principle that the object of any verb—including copulas—takes an objective-case pronoun.

    In English, a pronoun used as the "secondary" argument to an action verb takes objective case:

    The snail slimed me.

    and not

    *The snail slimed I.

    Stative verbs, which semantic category includes copulas, are the same:

    The snail likes me.

    and not

    *The snail likes I.

    Even stative (common) verbs with semantic meanings that overlap with the copula are the same:

    The set of snails includes/contains me. The set of English-speaking snails consists of me alone. "Snail" means me.

    and not

    *The set of snails includes/contains I. *The set of English-speaking snails consists of I alone. *"Snail" means I.

    Why should copulas be any different?—

    The snail is me.

    and not

    *The snail is I.

    An exception should be rejected absent a compelling reason to use it (e.g. if it were necessary to explain how the grammar actually works). But in normal English usage, this purported exception is simply not observed. This rule does not exist in English.

    (The difference with Spanish is that word order is freer in Spanish than in English, so the argument about flipping the order is more plausible. And, of course, actual usage.)

    And the real reason "me" is correct

    is actual usage. The simplest resolution to the puzzle is to recognize that the rule you were taught is wrong, because it evidently doesn't match native speakers' mental grammar.

  • shipr

    The verb to be does not take an object, so subject and complement are the same [nominative] case. This means that subject and complement can be reversed without doing great violence to the meaning. "I was the captain" or the slightly stilted "The captain was I" say the same thing. So in this case "If it were I" transposes to "If I were it" and this is all right. Try transposing "If it were me" into "If me were it" and one sees straight away that the correct form has to be "If it were I"


  • Related Question

    word choice - Which is correct: "This is her" or "This is she"?
  • Joe Philllips

    Upon answering the telephone, the person calling asks if Joan is available. If Joan is the person who answered the phone, should she say "This is her" or "This is she"?


  • Related Answers
  • Richard Gadsden

    Traditional grammarians prefer the nominative ("she") for the complement of the verb "to be". Most usage in my experience prefers the accusative ("her") and regards the verb as having a direct object rather than a complement.

    I suspect the traditional grammarians, as they often did, have misapplied a rule of Latin grammar. In Latin, "esse" takes a complement in the nominative case, but Latin declines the verb strongly enough that it doesn't bother with a pronoun as the subject of a verb unless needed for emphasis. "It is she" in Latin would be "illa id est", which looks far more natural than the English.

    Note that it's "c'est lui" in French, so there isn't a general rule for a complement of "to be" being in the nominative.

    Explanation:

    A normal (transitive) verb, like say "have" has a direct object, which is in the accusative case. So, for example, "I have her" uses "her" as a direct object, and "her" is in the accusative case, where "she" is in the nominative case.

    In Latin, the verb "esse" ("to be") is special; it doesn't have a direct object in the accusative case, it has a complement in the nominative case. English grammarians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries adopted a number of rules of Latin grammar into English; this was one of them. In Latin, "it is she" and "she is it" are both the same thing "id illa est" or "illa id est" can both be translated either way - the point being that the "is" ("est") just equates to things to each other - it's like in maths you can have x=y or y=x and they both mean the same thing.

    English, though, takes word-order very seriously, and a pronoun after a verb is very strongly marked as being in the accusative case and you don't get the benefit that you get in Latin from the exception - there's still one before the verb and one after; you don't get to make clear that it's commutative. So you have a special-case for a verb, which you get no useful benefit from. It's hardly surprising that most English speakers have reverted to "it is her" rather than "it is she".

  • Chris Dwyer

    "This is she" is short for "This is she who is speaking", and so I believe it is more formal.

    "This is her" probably isn't technically correct, but it is used enough to be fine.

  • kguest

    Either the subjective (she) or objective (her) would be ok, I think. Personally I'm inclined to answer "This is he".