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I've read in a book that I should "use the subjective case if the pronoun is the complement of the linking verb to be".

That is the following sentences are correct:

They believed that the thief was I. / Hey, it's I. / Yes, this is she. Who's calling?

OK, a rule is a rule. I don't mind using it, but I have a question for native speakers:

Is this way to say it heard in everyday speech? Will it sound deliberate/unnatural if I use it?

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    See also: English Language Learners – Kris Dec 24 '14 at 12:47
  • I agree, Pablo. If you're not a native speaker, you might consider placing this question on the English Language Learners site. – Matt Gutting Dec 24 '14 at 14:24
  • A rule is not a rule if you find it in a grammar book; they're full of bullshit. Throw that book away. In the future, don't believe everything you read. Especially not about English grammar. – John Lawler Dec 24 '14 at 16:22
  • @JohnLawler, Wow! that's new. what will guide me then? :-) – Pablo Descamisado Dec 24 '14 at 16:32
  • Listen to native speakers and imitate them. There are good grammar books but they aren't used in schools because the teachers have to use the books their teachers used, and so did their teachers, etc. Also, grammar is complicated; it's as detailed as mathematics, and you shouldn't expect simple rules. – John Lawler Dec 24 '14 at 16:44
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Your instinct is a good one. You may hear "Yes, this is she," if you call a professional office, but most American speakers would say "This is Mary" or, "Speaking" to avoid sounding stuffy.

"Hey, it's me," is a given, due to the informality of hey, probably.

"They believed that the thief was I," would probably be avoided by saying, "They believed that I was the thief."

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    I would go one step further with the last one: “They believed that the thief was I” is completely and utterly ungrammatical to me, whereas “They believed that the thief was me” is perfectly fine, albeit less likely to be said than “… that I was the thief”. For a more likely example: “They thought he was I” is absurd to my ears, while “They thought he was me” is completely fine. Here switching the pronouns won’t work, because it’ll end up meaning something quite different (but if switched, only “They thought I was him” works). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 24 '14 at 12:54
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    This is the difference between English, a language which people actually speak ("Its me") and Made-Up English, a language invented in order to make it difficult so that the educated could look down on people who only spoke English ("This is he"). – Colin Fine Dec 24 '14 at 14:17
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It seems that you have a very good ear for colloquial English. I wish my ear for the languages I've studied was as good.

The grammatical construction you're asking about is the "predicate nominative" -- and as you already noted, it is very common to use the objective case even when the subjective is called for.

To look at your specific examples:

  • "They believed that the thief was I." (This sounds stilted and odd -- more so since it is so easy to say "They believed that I was the thief.")
  • "Hey, it's I." (I guess this is technically correct. Or, at least I can't identify a reason that it is wrong. But it sure sounds wrong -- perhaps because of the informality of the word "hey" and the contraction "it's". To my ear, a more formal rendering of "Hello, it is I" doesn't sound nearly as disturbing as "Hey, it's I".)
  • "Yes, this is she. Who's calling?" (This is actually pretty common. It sounds a bit formal -- but not weird.)

To answer your question: Yes, it will sound unnatural if you use the subjective case in casual conversation (as it would if I used it).

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