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"It Is I" Versus "It Is Me"

Should you use the traditional structure, "It is I," or the more common structure, "It is me"?

By
Mignon Fogarty
June 14, 2012
Episode #079

linking verbsGrammar Girl here, or actually for this episode I should say, “ 'Tis I, Grammar Girl, here to help you understand when to use the words I and me.”

A listener named Jodie wanted to know which is correct: "It is I" or "It is me." She says that when she answers the phone and the person asks, "Is Jodie there?" she usually responds by saying, "This is she." But one of her friends says this is incorrect, and now they have a $5 bet on the question. 

The short answer is that Jodie wins. The traditional grammar rule states when a pronoun follows a linking verb, such as "is," the pronoun should be in the subject case. It’s also called the “nominative.” 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,'” because "he" is the same type of pronoun as "I."

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What Are Linking Verbs?

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." Here are some more correct 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.

Now the problem is that 90 percent of you are almost certainly thinking, “Well, that all sounds really weird. Is she serious?”

Yes, I'm serious, and that is the traditional rule, but fortunately most grammarians forgive you for not following the rule. In her aptly titled book Woe Is I, Patricia O'Connor notes that almost everyone says, “It is me,” and that the “It is I” construction is almost extinct (1).

Next: Why Sometimes It's OK to Say "It's Me"

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says that it’s a style choice, and that “It is I” is a formal style and “It is me” is a more casual style. In fact, most people who write about language agree that unless you're answering the phone for the English department at the University of Chicago or responding to a Supreme Court judge, “That's me” is an acceptable answer (2, 3, 4, 5).

So even though Jodie is technically correct, it would probably be fairer for her and her friend to take the $5 and go get a cold beverage together.

“Woe Is Me” Versus “Woe Is I”

I also have to add a note about the phrase “Woe is me.” Back in 2007, Jan Freeman pointed out in her Boston Globe column that “Woe is me” is an entirely different kind of sentence from “It is me.” Whereas we have a little bit of controversy over sentences such as “It is me,” “Woe is me” is the only correct way to say it--it’s not controversial--because in “Woe is me,” “me” is in something called the dative case, not the nominative like it is in “It is me.” In other words, the “me” in “Woe is me” is an indirect object. The person is receiving woe (6).

It Is I Who Thank You

Finally, in the original version of this podcast, I wrote said, “Until next time, it is I, Grammar Girl, who thanks you for listening,” which created something of a firestorm in the comments section. Someone insisted that it should be “It is I, Grammar Girl, who thank you,” and I changed it and then a bunch of people thought that was wrong,” so I want to set the record straight once and for all.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (7) different usage commenters have made different arguments for the use of either a singular or a plural verb in sentences that start “It is I who,” so it’s not surprising that we saw arguments for both a singular and a plural verb in the the comments on the Grammar Girl.

Merriam-Webster notes that this is a rare type of sentence, and there’s no strong consensus about which verb is right. However, in the examples they’ve gathered, it’s more common to use the verb that goes with “I.” One of their examples reads, “It is I who possess these attributes (8).” So, ignoring the appositive, I’m going to stick with “It is I, Grammar Girl, who thank you for listening.”

 [An earlier version of this article first appeared October 12, 2007.]

References

1.  O'Connor, P. Woe Is I. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1996, p. 10.

2.  Straus, J. The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. Ninth Edition. Mill Valley: Jane Straus, 2006, p. 17.

3.  Brians, P. Common Errors in English Usage. Wilsonville: William, James & Co, 2003. p.132.

4.  Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1994, p. 628.

5.  HiDuke, J. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Dr. Grammar Website, 2001, http://www.drgrammar.org/faqs/#73 (accessed October 9, 2007).

6. Freeman, J. “Woe Is Us, Part I,” Boston Globe, March 14, 2007. (accessed June 11, 2012)

7. “it is I who,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, (accessed June 11, 2012)

8. Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Frontier, 1952 (quoted in “it is I who,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage)

 

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