While reading Atlas Shrugged I've come across a number of conversations similar to the following:

Person 1: "You're a louse!"

Person 2: "I?"

This sounds very odd to me, but I can see how 'I?' could be short for 'I am?'.

I've looked around trying to discover if this is grammatically correct and I've learned about personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they) and objective personal pronouns (me, you, him, her, it, us, them).

Personally, I think the conversation sounds much better like this:

Person 1: "You're a louse!"

Person 2: "Me?"

...with the reasoning that this:

Person 1: "He's a louse!"

Person 2: "Him?"

sounds much better than this:

Person 1: "He's a louse!"

Person 2: "He?"

Therefore I think the correct grammar in this scenario is the objective personal pronoun (me) rather than the personal pronoun (I). I'm not sure, though.

Can anyone give me some concrete rules about this scenario?

  • 1
    You can think of the subjective pronouns (I, he, we,...) as being followed by a "deleted" verb (I am? in your first example). But that's often considered a bit old-fashioned / formal today, and in ordinary speech we usually use the objective pronouns (me, him, us,...). Personally, I have no time for people who claim It's only me! is an ungrammatical response to someone asking who's knocking on their door. – FumbleFingers Mar 10 '17 at 22:23
  • @FumbleFingers No, it isn't. The "me/I" there is a PC with a tensed verb and a Subject. Here there's neither of those things. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Mar 10 '17 at 22:23
  • 1
    @sumelic: I see nothing ungrammatical about my preferred response there: Ice-cream? Who wants ice-cream in the middle of winter? Not I! But at least that's a response to a question. OP here is effectively asking for the "grammatically correct" way to express surprise/doubt about any word in the preceding assertion. – FumbleFingers Mar 10 '17 at 22:41
  • 1
    Miss Piggy is surely the ultimate arbiter of style: "Pretentious? Moi?" – Edwin Ashworth Mar 10 '17 at 23:03
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    Wait a minute. You're reading Atlas Shrugged, and this is what you find odd? – deadrat Mar 11 '17 at 1:07

The difficulty here is caused by the fact that "he", "him", "I" and "me" are not sentences, and so to interpret them it is necessary to implicitly add in the missing words.

So in answer to the accusation "You are a louse!" a person could reply "Are you suggesting that I am a louse?", but he could also reply "Are you accusing me of being a louse?" The first expression may be shortened to "I?" and the second expression may be shortened to "me?".

So, whether you say "I?" or "me?", each is short for a perfectly valid question which might be asked when somebody points out that someone else is a louse.

If the person responded "Are you suggesting me is a louse?" or "Are you accusing I?" then these would be wrong. As a general rule if something can be interpreted as grammatically correct than it should be.

So both "I?" and me?" are abbreviated forms of grammatically valid questions. Furthermore, although the questions are differently phrased, the meaning is the same so, neither grammatically nor semantically, is thee any problem with either of them.

  • 3
    Your answer is well-written. However, every fact about modern English suggests that it's wrong. When we don't use a tensed verb in modern English, we don't use a nominative pronoun even if it is the notional subject. When someone says "Who's speaking?" or "Who's there", we don't say "I", and neither should we. If someone asks "Who did that?", we don't say "He", even though the correct answer, "Him" won't fit into the expanded reply: "He did that". – Araucaria - Not here any more. Mar 11 '17 at 0:18
  • The answer him fits into "The person you are referring to is him" - or" it was "him". But in any case there is a difference between a question, "who is a louse? and a statement "you are a louse". One requires an answer in the form of a statement and one is complete, but in this example led to a question being asked. – davidlol Mar 11 '17 at 6:52
  • Araucaria, you say: When someone says "Who's speaking?" or "Who's there", we don't say "I", and neither should we. I wonder why we SHOULD not? What's the reason for that? Is it a grammatical norm or a matter of convention? As "who" corresponds with "he" not "him", as a matter of fact. – user1425 Oct 6 '19 at 16:35

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