11

Overheard on an elevator today,

I didn't realize it was him.

Corrected by the know-it-all,

He. "I didn't realize it was he."

The know-it-all then went on a rant about how everybody is a dolt for not knowing that.

I swear I have never heard this before in my life. Is the know-it-all correct?

If so, why is "I didn't realize it was he," grammatically correct? What rule makes "him" incorrect here?

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    This rule is correct only in that silly toy language of English teachers, which is not English, and which nobody actually speaks. – Jon Purdy Aug 2 '13 at 3:39
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    You didn't realize it was who? Umm. – hunter2 Aug 2 '13 at 10:28
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    @hunter2: Are you sure that is who not whom? – Tim Lymington supports Monica Aug 2 '13 at 14:25
  • @TimLymington Did I see you in an elevator a few days ago? – hunter2 Aug 5 '13 at 3:31
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The 'rule' is that the verb to be, in any of its forms, is a copula that takes a predicate rather than an object, hence "It is I" and other phrases beloved of English teachers in junior schools. There are various theories about the reasons for this, but the truth is that it has become a shibboleth to distinguish those who had 'a proper education' from the hoi polloi who just learned English as they went along. [Another such is to point out that hoi is the definite article in Greek, so 'the hoi polloi' is a tautology; please don't comment to that effect unless you wish to be mocked.]

Nobody pretends that this rule is used in everyday speech; Barham's 'Jackdaw of Rheims' has a distinguished audience of prelates and clerics observe a jackdaw

His eye so dim,

So wasted each limb,

That, heedless of grammar, they all cried, "THAT'S HIM!--

showing that, though you are supposed to know that the 'correct' phrase is "that is he", you are not expected to use it in moments of stress.

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    I had to google two words you used in your response, demonstrating I lack the even competence to be mocked. +1 for you, good sir. – John Dibling Aug 1 '13 at 22:24
  • @TimLymington: It's a good thing you 'splained yourself within those brackets. If you hadn't I was all set to bust your chops about using "the" before hoi polloi! (Just kidding. Plus one.) Truth be told, however, I've always used hoi polloi without the article. Guess that must make me a know-it-all (or simply a smart-ass!). – rhetorician Aug 2 '13 at 1:51
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    Good answer, but one nitpick: A predicate includes the verb; I think the term you're looking for is subject complement. By the way, I didn't know that tautology was a term for redundant phrases – I had only heard it used in the context of logic before. – Bradd Szonye Aug 2 '13 at 5:36
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    The objective ‘me’ has been used as a disjunctive pronoun (and also in subject complements) for over a millennium in nearly all Germanic languages. The ‘rule’ that a subject complement must be in the nominative because its antecedent is the subject, and therefore nominative by default, is one of those ‘rules’ that were inferred from Latin grammar. It was never mandatory in English until the 18th century, and to consider it so now is more ignorant and disingenuous than really know-it-all-y. (Compare other Germanic languages, like Danish, where ‘it is I’ is actually grammatically incorrect) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 2 '13 at 9:53
  • @JohnDibling Everyone has the even competence to be mocked. Many of us have the irregular competence to make it easy. // Which two? – hunter2 Aug 2 '13 at 10:33
8

Technically, the know-it-all is correct. When a pronoun falls after some form of the linking verb to be (am, are, is, was, were, being, been), then it should be in the same case as the subjective pronoun. As Claire Kehrwald Cook states in her excellent book, Line by Line (p. 182):

"Since this verb [the to be verb] functions only as an equal sign, a pronoun that follows should logically be in the same case as its equivalent on the other side of the equation. Ordinarily, then, the pronoun to the right of be belongs in the subjective case. The following sentences are grammatically correct: It will be you and I who suffer the consequences. It is they who are responsible.

However, Ms. Cook goes on to say this about everyday usage:

In informal contexts, though, the grammatical rule is often set aside. Most usage guides, in fact, consider It's me and That's him acceptable and even preferable in general use, where the strictly correct alternatives would seem stilted.

After the infinitive to be, the objective case is usually both idiomatic and technically accurate. They expected me to be the winner and They expected the winner to be me are both good grammar, since the subject of an infinitive must be in the objective case and a subject and complement should match. If the infinitive does not have a subject, however, the complement is in the subjective case, matching the subject of the main verb: She wished to be I. That sentence, of course suggests greater formality than anyone recommends for ordinary purposes. "I'm so lucky to be me" goes the song from On the Town, and no one faults the lyricist.

The rules governing I and me also apply to the other personal pronouns with distinctive subjective and objective cases: he, him; she, her; we, us; and they, them.

So, I would say, that the know-it-all was correct. As an example, I personally do answer, "This is she" when someone asks for me when I answer the phone. Honoring that linking verb. However, in informal contexts, I wouldn't think anything of someone saying, "It was her."

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    +1 I also answer, "this is he," and never considered the similarities. – John Dibling Aug 4 '13 at 14:04
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No. The know-it-all was misinformed. Not terribly surprising, I spose.
Peevers are just poor people who've been bitten by a zombie rule.
He might as well go on a rant about how the singular of you is thou,
and anybody who doesn't realize this is a dolt.

The English nominative personal pronouns (I, he, she, we, they) are now only used as subjects.
The objective personal pronouns (me, you, him, her, it, us, them) are used elsewhere;
in particular, they're used for anything following the verb, including predicates.

Just like the use of French moi, for pretty much the same reason: loss of the case system.
C'est moi or C'est je? Luckily, the French don't seem to have our zombie rules,
so they don't have to say that "technically, it's c'est je".

  • I somewhat wonder why you compare with French as there are languages closer related to English which use nominative personal pronouns in the matter in question not only technically but also in informal contexts. – Em1 Aug 2 '13 at 14:10
  • Because those languages (German, for instance) still have case systems. English doesn't, just like French doesn't. – John Lawler Aug 2 '13 at 17:05
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    "C'est je" has absolutely never been said in french, "Ce suis je" was the phrasing and it's so ancient it's absolutely unusable nowadays (only historical linguists even know of its existence) contrary to the english form "it is I" that can still be used today. The simple fact that you think french doesn't have zombie rules shows your lack of knowledge of the french language. I would advise not to use arguments you know nothing about on the web, where people from all backgrounds can read you. – Alice Rocheman Mar 16 '14 at 3:28
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    French doesn't have our zombie rules. It's got its own, of course. – John Lawler Mar 16 '14 at 5:10
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The know-it-all is technically correct. With a different sentence example, "I am taller than he" is more correct than "I am taller than him" because the first is a shortened version of "I am taller than he is". But using 'him' is much more commonly used.

He is correct because 'he' is a nominative personal pronouns (so he is a subject), while 'him' is a objective personal pronoun (so him is an object).

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    You refer to the shorter version as the one omitting "is". So what is the longer version of "I didn't realize it was he."? – TrevorD Aug 1 '13 at 22:56
  • I guess it would be "I didn't realize it was he who did what it is I am talking about", because 'he' as in the person who did something makes more sense that 'him' as the person who did something. – Bobo Aug 1 '13 at 23:58
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I think the 'know-it-all' is right. As far as I remember, -him- is used in such sentence if it's preceded by a preposition. Exempli Gratia, It's for him. -him- in the sentence is preceded by a preposition for by which, -him- is known to be the object of the preposition. On the other hand, he is used in the absence of the preposition. in my reviewer the sentence, 'the fans thought the best player to be he' is an example. please don't mock me, it's only what I remember. However, I accept corrections, only that please do it in a respectful way. thank you :)

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    I think you are combining several different rules here. There is no preposition in a sentence like, "I see him," but it is still correct to use "him" rather than he" because "him" is the object of the verb "see". The accusative form of a pronoun, like "him", is used as the object of a verb or as the object of a preposition. As TimLymington mentions, "It was he" is possible because the verb "to be", unlike "see", doesn't take an object. – herisson Aug 1 '17 at 3:40
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"I didn't realize it was him"

Know-it-all is wrong with "I didn't realize it was he."

  • Realize that 'realize' is a reporting verb. Adding a 'that' is imperative.
  • Observe that the two Independent clauses are present in the sentence without a proper connector:

    -[I didn't realize] [it was he].

My two cents: I didn't realize that it was him.

Consider 'him' as the Object of the second, now dependent, clause. This clause is in Passive voice. The third-person-male becomes the object; therefore, it must be 'him' (Object case pronoun) rather 'he'(Nominative case pronoun).


However, there is the case of Linking verb 'is'. Subject and Object around such a verb must be structurally and meaningfully parallel. 'It is he' - is not wrong. Its use is archaic.


Source: Chicago Manual of Style Active and Passive Voice | Nominative Case misused for Objective

english.purdue.edu Identifying Independent and Dependent Clauses - Sentence Fragments


  • @andrew -Thanks for the It's to Its. – chatterji Jan 14 '15 at 10:00
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    "That" is not in fact mandatory in sentence like this. – herisson Feb 15 '17 at 22:35

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