These are song lyrics, so there's poetic license--yes. However, it raises a grammar question that some friends and I have wondered about for years.

Song goes:

If for a moment I were you, and you were me, how would it be?
Would you fall apart as I walk by?
Hang around to catch my eye?
Be jealous of another guy?
If I were you and you were I?

It's the last line: is it wrong? If one can say, "If I were you," why can't he flip that around and write, "If you were I?" Does it have to be "If you were me?" Or is that even correct? "If me were you" certainly isn't right. So why is it correct (if it is correct) to say, "If you were me?"

  • Sorry, what is this song? I can't find its title or author. – Riga Feb 8 '13 at 23:23
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    I think the song is called, "If I Were You," and it was written and recorded by James Taylor's brother, Livingston. Quite a fine singer and guitar player, this younger brother of J.T. – Loren Whitaker Feb 9 '13 at 21:16

I am the subject of the verb, but English treats me as an object. You can be used for both.

So OP's "reversal" principle doesn't really mean anything. If I say "I like you", I can't reverse it to *"You like I" any more than I can say *"Me like you" (unless I'm Tarzan talking to Jane).

In "If I were you", obviously "I" is the "subject" and "you" are (is?!) the "object". If you reverse the roles of the pronouns "I" becomes the object, so it has to be "If you were me"

See Are You and I You and Me? for further exploration of the issue.

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    It's a bit more complicated than this, though, surely. The verb to be doesn't take an object; it has a complement because the two things on either side of it are equivalent. There's an ELU question about "It is I/me," I think. Perhaps there is an argument that the complement form of "I" is "me" (in which case, how is "It is I" grammatical?) – Andrew Leach Feb 8 '13 at 22:38
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    "It is I" sounds great. Your hypothesis that the complement of link verbs is an object which requires the accusative case does not hold water. – Kaz Feb 8 '13 at 22:53
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    @AndrewLeach You, you think that it is a matter of nominative versus accusative complements, as though one were speaking Latin. Me, I think that object forms are the normal emphatic ones. Him, he still wonders. See what I just did there? French does the same thing there as English — moi, je le sais — whereas Spanish uses subject forms as Latin did. They’ll yell ¡Tú! where a Frenchman would yell Toi!, because not everyone uses Latin rules here, us included. There, I did it again, see? – tchrist Feb 9 '13 at 2:02
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    @Kaz: I have absolutely no idea what kind of "grammar" you're postulating that would make it ungrammatical to report my own speech faithfully. I simply chose to add "I said" to ensure the results weren't swamped by 3,120,000 instances of "It is" I said. Sure, we all read historical novels and watch historical dramas, but when did you last hear someone say "It is I" in real life? Probably never, for most people alive today. – FumbleFingers Feb 9 '13 at 3:05
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    @FumbleFingers, I have never heard my American father use it is me, he will always say it is I, as will a very close friend if his from Oxford. Granted, both were born in the 1930s but that is the form they use and the one I was taught growing up. – terdon Feb 9 '13 at 14:21

"He may be me," said Father Brown, with cheerful contempt for grammar.—G K Chesterton, "The incredulity of Father Brown"

Here we have I as a subject complement, which is a noun phrase which follows a linking verb. Linking verbs describe or rename the subject, rather than describing an action that happens upon it. (A good guide is if you replaced the verb with = would it still make logical sense, allowing for tense and number).

Hence what we may call the "strict" grammatical argument would say that in "...you were [first-person pronoun]", the first person pronoun is a subject, not an object, and hence should be I, not me.

But like Father Brown we may also, with cheerful contempt for such ideas, treat it as a direct object, and hence have me rather than I.

More to the point, treating the noun phrase here as the direct object (saying "It is me" rather than "It is I") is well-established, and accepted by many, to the point where the "strict" approach may seem stuffy to many and wrong to some.

But it is by the "strict" approach, that these particular lyrics are indeed grammatically correct.

More important though, is that grammar is a means to an end.

The end is the transfer of ideas, emotions and opinions from one mind to another as fully and successfully as possible.

Following the well-attested rules helps us do that. Sometimes following the zombie rules that some people here (and I am one of them) will argue against, will still help us do that. Often breaking the zombie rules will do that. Every now and then, breaking even the well-attested rules will help us do that. This last falls into the category of "poetic license".

As such, in song lyrics, I would perhaps support "you were I" even if it were not strictly grammatical, if they were used to good effect. (But only if they were).

Still, that's moot in this case, and moot it mote be,* for they are indeed grammatical.

*"Moot it mote be" is horrible, isn't it? That's what happens if you follow the letter of the rules, and nothing else.

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    Someplace it is written that the default case in English is actually the oblique case, not the subject case, which may go some ways in explaining all this. – tchrist Feb 9 '13 at 1:21
  • @tchrist any chance you can recall where that "someplace" is? – Jon Hanna Feb 9 '13 at 1:54
  • Right here. – tchrist Feb 9 '13 at 1:56
  • @tchrist I'm not convinced. It could partly be dialectical bias against answers without a verb (so I'd be more likely to answer "I do" than "me" to his example question), but mostly it's that the understanding that leads to I rather than me in such cases does exist in real-life use by some (though that does not happen in my dialect, in informal registers). Now, that the two different defaults exist in different combinations of dialect and register, I'd be more prepared to believe. – Jon Hanna Feb 9 '13 at 2:03
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    You and your pal knock on your other friend’s door, who calls out, “Who’s there?” You answer the question with a single word, your choice of us or we. Which of those two do you choose, and why? I have never heard a native speaker give other than us. See this comment regarding the use of oblique case in emphatics. – tchrist Feb 9 '13 at 2:17

A subject - object analysis is incorrect here, as be is used as a link verb here.

be 1 vb ... 4. (copula) used as a linking verb between the subject of a sentence and its noun or adjective complement or complementing phrase. In this case be expresses the relationship of either essential or incidental equivalence or identity (John is a man; John is a musician) (Collins)

There are more philosophical uses in this area:

John is John (Tony Blair)

If I were you, ...

The complement of a link verb is traditionally put in the nominative, not the accusative:

It is I.

However, modern usage has largely veered away from this, so 'It's me' and 'It's us' are now considered quite acceptable.

'If you were I' sounds quite preposterous (and has done for quite a long time); however, in the song, as you say, poetic licence is being used for comic effect - quite amusingly.

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This is somewhat of a gray area. Certain pronouns in English exhibit a limited form of case. When they are the object of a verb, the objective case has to be used. For instance, I passed the message to her not I passed the message to she. That much is clear.

However, it is not so clear that when a pronoun is the target of a be word, that it is an object. There are plenty of examples in which the nominative case is used when the pronoun is the target of is, are, were/was, or be:

Who is there? It is I.

It was he who first pioneered the technique.

Is Ms. Jones there? Yes, this is she.

It was I who got the promotion.

It seems that when be is in the form of a conditional, or with various modals auxiliaries like should, then I becames ungrammatical, or at least awkward (marginally grammatical) as a target.

It should be {I* / me} who gets the promotion.

If it were {I* / me}, I would ... (Note that was I is possible, but were I is awkward: were is not the plural were here, but the conditional.)

Also, when be is in participle form, the subjective/nominative pronoun is awkward:

It has always been {I* / me} who ...

Infinitive form of be also doesn't like nominative pronouns. In this situation it does appear that the pronoun is in fact an object of be.

It sucks to be {I* / me}.

I wonder what it is like to be {he* / him}.

To have been {she* / her} would have been quite a life.

In any case, because sometimes I can appear as the target of some form of be (it is not wrong a hundred percent of the time), the song gets away with you were I for the sake of rhyme. It is poetic license at work.

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  • Are you sure about this? I don't think "has been I who" and "is I who" are treated any differently grammatically. Why should they be different? (Google Ngrams says that English is slowly shifting from "I" to "me" for both of these). – Peter Shor Feb 8 '13 at 23:08
  • I'm only going by my intuition on that one. I don't think "has been I who" is outright wrong, like "give it to she". There is some lingering awkwardness there. – Kaz Feb 9 '13 at 0:14
  • I upvoted this answer because I didn't think it was wrong on its face and makes some good points about how accusative forms are obligatory in many cases. However, I think it bears comment that the examples with nominative complements (the first set of examples) are all in a stilted, hyperformal register that you find in written English, but in spoken form would only be encountered in historical dramas and very occasionally in real life from pretentious (or sarcastic) people. – nohat Feb 9 '13 at 7:50
  • I say, "It is I," and don't intend sarcasm. Nor am I being pretentious, as "It is me" sounds all wrong to me. Perhaps I read too much and talk too little for "it is me" to sound logical. /// This is another point - a different point - this apparently outdated notion that _logic_ is a chief determinant in what is grammatically correct and what is not in the English Language. To me, the solid logic of the language (or nearly solid, as it was forty years ago) is the most beautiful aspect of it. It bothers me to think the language is now the province of idle-headed cell-phone chatters....No! – Loren Whitaker Feb 9 '13 at 21:06
  • @nohat Thanks for the upvote. With regard to your comments, even if it be as it may, pretentious and sarcastic are not synonyms for ungrammatical. When we hear give that to she, we do not think that the speaker is pretentious, but rather a non-native speaker. Of my examples only Yes, this is she is somewhat quaint. I wouldn't think that it is pompous; rather, it would bring a smile to my face. Why it might give a quaint impression to the modern ear is perhaps that it sounds like the person is referring to herself in the third person, which is child-like. – Kaz Feb 10 '13 at 4:39

According to Cambridge: “When we use a pronoun as a subject complement after be, we usually use an object pronoun (e.g. me, him, us)”


This would also help avoid statements such as "if he were he".

Therefore, I would say "it is I" but not "if you were I"...unless I needed something to rhyme with "by", "eye" and "guy", of course.

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