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"It is I" follows a well-known prescriptivist rule

This question is about prescriptive grammar. It’s a fairly well-known prescriptivist rule that “me, him, her, them” (in other words, pronouns in the objective case) should not be used after forms of the verb “to be” in sentences like “It’s me” or “The culprit is him.” The recommended alternative is to use “I, he, she, they” (pronouns in the nominative case) instead. Constructions of the form “it is me” can apparently be found as far back as the 16th century, but I’m not interested in learning how well (i.e. badly) this rule reflects actual usage. I want to learn more about the prescriptivist rule itself, and what forms educated people have prescribed for various situations. (It’s possible different people proposed slightly different rules.)

For example, I was not aware until recently that the objective case is prescribed after “to be” in sentences of the form “They thought her to be me.” The explanation is that “me” should agree in case with the antecedent “her,” which as the object of the sentence is in the objective case.

This rule is sometimes stated along the lines of "‘to be’ should link two noun phrases of the same case" (from Mark Israel’s "It's me" vs "It is I", adapted from an article by Roger Lustig, referenced in this Stack Exchange question: Which one is correct to say: "It's me" or "It's I"?). However, this is not sufficient as a comprehensive guide to the use of pronouns after to be, because there is not always a nominative or objective antecedent.

I found a grammar book from 1919 that seems to give slightly more guidance: Correct English, Volumes 20-21, edited by Josephine Turck Baker. In general, it follows the principle that “‘to be’ should link two noun phrases of the same case," but it also describes some exceptions.

Here's my summary of its rules, based on the examples given (I think the book's wording of the rules is unhelpful, as some of them falsely appear to contradict one another):

My interpretation of the rules in "Correct English"

  1. Pronouns should be in the nominative case after

    • am, is, was, were
    • have been, has been, had been
    • can be, could be
    • may be, might be
    • shall be, will be


    Example: “I hardly think that it was he to whom Mr. Blank referred.” I would assume the author left out some combinations of modal verb and "be" from this list merely for reasons of space, so it should be read as including should be, would be, etc.

  2. Pronouns should be in the objective case after “to be” when it is immediately preceded by an antecedent in the objective case.

    Example: “They supposed it to be me.”

  3. Pronouns should be in the nominative case after “to be” when it is not immediately preceded by an antecedent in the objective case, and it is preceded earlier in the sentence by an antecedent in the nominative case.

    Examples:

    • "It was thought to be he to whom the speaker referred."
    • "I should like to be he."
    • "Do you think that you should like to be he?"


    It seems possible that sentences such as “I am free to be I” (which seems to be the same in structure as the first sentence, aside from substituting an adjective for a participle) would also fall under this category, although unfortunately no examples of this type are given. (if so, it would contradict this Grammarphobia post.)

  4. Pronouns should be in the nominative case after “being” when it is immediately preceded by an antecedent in the genitive case.

    Example: “I had no thought of its being he.

These rules still leave a gray area, however.

What form "should" be used where there is no antecedent of any kind?

In particular, I've thought of two cases:

What form did people prescribe after “being” when it is not preceded by an antecedent of any sort?

Being [he/him] is not easy.

What form did people prescribe after “to be” when it is not preceded by an antecedent of any sort?

To be [he/him] is not easy. It is not easy to be [he/him].

“It” is not an antecedent in the second sentence, as we can see from sentences such as “It is not easy to like her.”)

My thoughts

There is precedent for the use of the nominative after the copula without a nominative antecedent in sentences like “I had no thought of its being he.” I’m not sure why the nominative is prescribed here—it clearly would be ridiculous to use a genitive pronoun after the copula in such circumstances, but why not an objective pronoun?—but in any case, that’s clearly established in the book. So it seems a minor extension to use the nominative in sentences “Being he is not easy.” And in fact, the way the rule is phrased in Correct English suggests this: "A noun or pronoun after the verb be in the gerundial construction (being) is in the nominative case." It still sounds odd though, and there are no example sentences like this in Correct English (all of the example sentences have genitive pronouns before the gerund), so I’d like to know if it was actually prescribed by other sources.

The construction with “to be” is different. My best guess is that we would suppose an elided subject such as “[for me] to be” which would suggest the use of the objective case (“It is not easy [for him] to be him.”). But that assumption seems like it could also apply in sentences of the type *“I should like [for me] to be him,” and yet Correct English nonetheless prescribes the nominative case for the predicate noun in this sentence.

The situation in Correct English is confusing because at one point, it says "as the objective case always precedes the infinitive verb, the objective case must always follow the infinitive verb," and later on it says "The pronouns I, he, she, we, they follow to be when to be is not preceded by a noun or a pronoun." This is the apparent contradiction I was talking about earlier; you should look at it in context to see if I'm misinterpreting it. All of the example sentences where a nominative pronoun follows to be actually have nominative nouns or pronouns earlier in the sentence that can serve as antecedents, so it's not clear to me if this rule is meant to be exceptionless, or confined to certain grammatical contexts.

The kind of answer I'm interested in

As I said up top, I don't want to hear about actual usage or practical advice. I'm interested in learning what people have said is "correct" in these circumstances (preferably with examples, to make the construction totally clear). The more well-known or influential the prescriptivist, the better.

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I cannot offer a systematic treatment of this subject, but I have found one interesting data point, English Grammar Simplified, Its Study Made Easy by James C Fernald, LHD (1916, which, alas, predates your source by three years only). To show that this is clearly a text from the prescriptive school, I quote Dr Fernald's preface:

The facts of correct English usage are, for the most part, as sure as the facts of the working of a watch or of a locomotive. We can do no better service for any student, young or old, than to tell him definitely what those facts are, and let him learn them once for all.

So there.

In the section of pronouns Rule 1 (p.199) for the nominative case makes that case required in predicate nominatives:

  1. The Predicate Nominative; as. This is he; It is /.

Caution. — Such forms as, "It's me/' 'That's him," etc., are erroneous.

EGS prescribes the objective case for objects of infinitives and participles in Rule 9 (p. 202) for the objective case:

  1. The Object of an Infinitive or Participle; as, My father promised to send them; I have not known of his meeting her.

However, Rule 2 (p. 200) for the nominative case allows for an exception under warning and caution:

  1. The Nominative after an Infinitive or Participle; as, I could wish to be he; I did not think of its being /.

This use; however, is rare, and often harsh or clumsy, and therefore in general to be avoided.

Caution. - After an infinitive with a subject in the objective case, or after a participle agreeing with a noun or pronoun in the objective case, the pronoun following such infinitive or participle must be in the objective case; as, I understood it to be him.

(Everywhere emphasis is mine)

  • Thanks! It makes sense that Fernald recommends "I have not known of his meeting her," since the verb "meeting" is unambiguously transitive and takes a direct object. Unfortunately the situation is less clear with the verb "to be." I would agree with him that the nominative in this position often sounds clumsy, to say the least. – sumelic Apr 9 '16 at 19:23
  • @sumelic Yes, it's a somewhat frustrating source. Although Fernald's rule is universal, his examples use transitive verbs. And he talks about nouns having case, even though they're uninflected. I don't think modern prescriptivists would recognize his exception for the nominative with to be. – deadrat Apr 9 '16 at 20:03
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"Being he" and "To be he", despite their awkwardness, do seem to have been traditionally prescribed by at least some grammar-guide authors in sentences where there is no preceding subject of any kind. (However, Peter Shor's answer indicates that this was not universal; some authors apparently thought the accusative would be better in some contexts.)

New Graded Method in English Grammar, by Marion Durand Mugan (1890), says

Rule 5. A noun or pronoun used independently is in the nominative absolute case (and should have the nominative form).

Explanation.—The noun or pronoun which is said to be used independently with a participle, is what may be considered the subject of the participle or the predicate following a participle from the verb, to be.

Analyze and correct the following sentences, using this as a model:

  • "I had no idea of its being him."

Him is a pronoun used independently with a participle, therefore it is in the nominative absolute case, R. 5, and should have the nominative form, he.

If the argument for nominative case here is based on this being analyzed as a "nominative absolute" construction, then I think the same prescription would presumably apply to pronouns that are the predicative complement of "to be" or "being" without any overt subject.

Nobody actually seems to use the construction with subjectless "being"/"to be" + nominative complement in practice, though, as can be seen by comparing the Google Books results for "easy being me" with those for "easy being I".

  • [Chanting] Being he! Being he! – Black and White Jul 29 '17 at 3:35
  • I think you slightly mischaracterized my source in your edit. It agrees that if there is no subject of any kind, it should be in the nominative case. But it gives situations where there is an implied subject, where the pronoun should match the case of that subject. – Peter Shor Jul 29 '17 at 12:58
  • @PeterShor: Hmm, that's true. I'm still processing what the different authors say; after I do that, I plan to edit this a bit more. – sumelic Jul 29 '17 at 20:59
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+100

The book Higher Lessons in English: A work on English Grammar and Composition, in Which the Science of Language is Made Tributary to the Art of Expression, by Reed and Kellogg, published in 1878, goes into great detail on the grammar of whether you should use the nominative or objective case with forms of the verb to be.

The primary rule for which case to use, which works most of the time, is:

  • The cases on either side of the verb to be should match.

I give the relevant quote from the book

A noun or a pronoun used as an attribute complement or a participle or an infinite is in the same case (Nom. or Obj.) as the word to which it relates as attribute.

Examples.—Being an artist, he appreciated it. I proved it to be him.

There are some further rules that cover situations which the primary rule doesn't handle.

  1. "When the assumed subject of the participle or infinitive is a possessive, its attribute complement is said to be in the nominative case.

The example they give is:

Its being he should make no difference.

  1. "When the participle or infinitive is used abstractly, without an assumed subject, its attribute complement is also said to be in the nominative case."

Example they give for this are

To be he is to be a scholar. Being a scholar is not being an idler.

  1. "The assumed subject of the infinitive being omitted when it is the same of that of the principle subject, him, in the sentence I wish to be him—equaling I wish (me or myself) to be him—is the proper form, being in the same case as me."

That is, in sentences like

You can be whomever you wish to be,

there is an assumed object of the verb wish,

You can be whomever you wish (yourself) to be,

and this object is in the objective case, so whomever should also be in the objective case.

Using these rules, it appears that the three examples in case (3) of the question above should all be in the objective case:

  • It was thought to be him to whom the speaker referred,

because the infinitive to be equates him and (to) whom the speaker referred.

  • I should like to be him,

because there's an implicit pronoun in the objective case in this sentence: I should like (myself) to be him.

  • Do you think that you should like to be him?

Again, there's an implicit pronoun: Do you think you should like (yourself) to be him.

For the "gray area" in the OP's question, where there is no antecedent of any kind, the right case according to this book would be nominative because of the second rule above:

  • Being he is not easy.
  • To be he is not easy.
  • It is not easy to be he.

These last examples are nearly the same as the book's example:

To be he is to be a scholar.

  • 1
    The reference to Latin is interesting; it seems that in Latin, the accusative was often used with an infinitive, but the nominative was used when the infinitive was associated with certain auxiliary-like verbs, including volo "to want/to wish". So a prescriptivist who based everything on Latin would seemingly be in favor of "To be him is to be a scholar" but also "I wish to be he". But so far, no one has found a text that takes this position. So actually, the old prescriptivists didn't just blindly copy Latin (as is commonly asserted). – sumelic Jul 27 '17 at 11:14
  • I'm sure you just misinterpreted your source because no one would recommend the predicate nominative in one sentence (Being he is not easy) but randomly not recommend it in another one (I should like to be him). – Black and White Aug 5 '17 at 19:45
  • @Edna: I would be more convinced by your comment if you actually read the source yourself and explained how I misinterpreted it. The source is linked from my answer. Two quotes from it that it claims are both correct: Being an artist, he appreciated it. and I proved it to be him. – Peter Shor Aug 5 '17 at 20:10
  • @PeterShor Weird... Maybe some people don't recognize the predicate nominative after infinitives. – Black and White Aug 5 '17 at 20:11
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    @EdnaMode This is 19th century prescriptive English grammar, and so quite non-intuitive for speakers of contemporary English. – Peter Shor Aug 5 '17 at 20:17

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