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Upon answering the telephone, the person calling asks if Joan is available. If Joan is the person who answered the phone, should she say "This is her" or "This is she"?

  • "This is she" is short for "This is she who is speaking", and so I believe it is more formal. "This is her" probably isn't technically correct, but it is used enough to be fine. – Chris Dwyer Oct 14 '10 at 15:32
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    This is not a duplicate of the “Who wants ice-cream?” question. That question is about verbless utterances in general; this one is specifically about identifying yourself on the phone, which, crucially, is a situation that does not follow the general pattern. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 25 '16 at 21:30
  • Odd that the definition of a duplicate is "question has already been asked BEFORE", yet this question is a duplicate of a question that came later? – Joe Phillips Oct 2 '16 at 17:44
  • This is not really a duplicate; for in the other question it is unclear how to expand ‘not I’ into a full sentence. – Toothrot Apr 17 at 9:26
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Traditional grammarians prefer the nominative ("she") for the complement of the verb "to be". Most usage in my experience prefers the accusative ("her") and regards the verb as having a direct object rather than a complement.

I suspect the traditional grammarians, as they often did, have misapplied a rule of Latin grammar. In Latin, "esse" takes a complement in the nominative case, but Latin declines the verb strongly enough that it doesn't bother with a pronoun as the subject of a verb unless needed for emphasis. "It is she" in Latin would be "illa id est", which looks far more natural than the English.

Note that it's "c'est lui" in French, so there isn't a general rule for a complement of "to be" being in the nominative.

Explanation:

A normal (transitive) verb, like say "have" has a direct object, which is in the accusative case. So, for example, "I have her" uses "her" as a direct object, and "her" is in the accusative case, where "she" is in the nominative case.

In Latin, the verb "esse" ("to be") is special; it doesn't have a direct object in the accusative case, it has a complement in the nominative case. English grammarians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries adopted a number of rules of Latin grammar into English; this was one of them. In Latin, "it is she" and "she is it" are both the same thing "id illa est" or "illa id est" can both be translated either way - the point being that the "is" ("est") just equates to things to each other - it's like in maths you can have x=y or y=x and they both mean the same thing.

English, though, takes word-order very seriously, and a pronoun after a verb is very strongly marked as being in the objective case and you don't get the benefit that you get in Latin from the exception - there's still one before the verb and one after; you don't get to make clear that it's commutative. So you have a special-case for a verb, which you get no useful benefit from. It's hardly surprising that most English speakers have reverted to "it is her" rather than "it is she".

A note on cases: Latin is conventionally described as having seven cases (though only five are actually different for most nouns and pronouns). It has two cases, accusative and dative for the objects of verbs. English's residual case system only has the one case for both, which merge into the objective case (in fact, a third Latin case, ablative, merges in too). That's why the two paragraphs above appear to use two different words for the same case.

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    I think "it is her" is probably better English; there's a whole set of prescriptive grammar that comes from misapplied analogies from Latin, and this is definitely one of them. – Richard Gadsden Oct 16 '10 at 19:38
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    For "it is she" pleads that this is probably closer to historical usage, when the ancestor of modern English still had cases, which were most probably applied as in "it is she". // Note that "illa id est" is probably not the way Romans would write it; they'd rather write simply "illa est". This "filler-it" is not used in Latin the same way as in English. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 6 '11 at 5:00
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    But you say "it's me", right? How does it fit with this explanation? – Federico Poloni Jan 17 '15 at 8:16
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    This is all quite relevant and a useful explanation—but it does not actually deal with the fact that even though the vast majority of English speakers would say “This is her" in most contexts, confirming your identity on the phone is a special case. “This is she” is perhaps a bit old-fashioned as a way of answering the phone, but it is still in widespread use. But I at least have never heard anyone answer on the phone with the more standard “This is her”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 9 '15 at 18:35
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    Actually, even the traditional rule is a bit more complicated than that: the idea is that the noun phrase after "to be" should match its antecedent in case. But the antecedent is not always in the nominative case. So while some grammarians did prescribe saying things like "It is I," (where both "it" and "I" are nominative) they also prescribed saying "He knew it to be me" (where both "it" and "me" are accusative). – herisson Jun 19 '16 at 5:27
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It's correct either way. English has lost its case system almost completely. This makes it hard even for native speakers to decide between subject case (nominative) and object case (formerly accusative/dative).

A long time ago – far too long ago to be directly relevant today –, English still had a 'proper' case system and the copula be was followed by subject case. This is normal for Indo-European languages. Therefore, originally it would have been something like (translating to modern) "It is she".

However, just like French but under the radar, English developed emphatic forms of its pronouns. When an adult asks a bunch of children "Qui veut de la glace ?" / "Who wants some ice cream?", the children's natural response is "Moi ! Moi ! Moi !" / "Me! Me! Me!", not "Je ! Je ! Je !" / "I! I! I!" This doesn't mean that the response is in dative / object case but that the response is emphatic. The same emphatic form of the personal pronoun is also used in connection with the copula être / be: "C'est moi." / "This is me."

The French third person feminine pronoun happens to have no special emphatic form. It's elle whether emphatic or not. In English, the non-emphatic subject case is she, and all other forms (object case and emphatic form) are her. Therefore, in natural English the correct answer is "This is her." This is how non-native speakers learn to say the sentence.

For some reason, there is a tradition in English grammar (as taught to native speakers) to completely ignore the issue of emphatic pronouns and to assume that English has to work like German, which does not have them, or like Latin, where only emphatic pronouns exist and these carry the case distinctions. A non-native speaker who missed the drills for the emphatic pronouns but who, coming from another Indo-European language, knows about subject case after be, will quite logically say "This is she." English prescriptivism, in its trademark cluelessness (often pointed out by proper linguists), stepped into the same trap. English has a tradition of rules being made up by ignorant prescriptivists and then taught to generations of students and used as shibboleths that serve to distinguish those who received a 'proper' education from those who just use the language naturally and correctly, such as intelligent members of the working class and of course the likes of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. As a result, "This is she" became a correct alternative again, long after it had fallen out of use.

(Note on case terminology: English still has subject case and object case, though it only marks them on pronouns. It also has genitive pronouns, but since the former genitive suffix 's is now a possession-marking clitic, the status of genitive as a case in English is even less clear. English subject case is exactly the same thing that is called nominative in German, Latin etc. English object case is the result of a merger of accusative and dative, also known as accudative. This merger has long been completed in English, has almost completed in Dutch and many German dialects, but is still in progress in standard German.)

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    This is a wonderful answer that deserves far more upvotes. – Richard Gadsden Feb 29 '16 at 17:32
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    Can you cite some source that supports the statement that sentences like "This is she" fell out of use at some point in the past? It doesn't seem obvious to me that this is true; another alternative scenario that seems plausible to me is that it coexisted with sentences like "This is her" for a long time, with changes in their relative frequencies. – herisson Jan 5 '17 at 17:41
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    You caught me there. I must admit that this detail was just an educated guess, included as part of a coherent story that explains what's going on. I was only concerned with the overall story, and in fact I agree that your alternative scenario is just as plausible (just harder to explain). I'll see if I find anything which settles this one way or another. But I'm not a professional linguist, and may not find such a source even if it exists. – user86291 Jan 6 '17 at 17:48
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    So you mean, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen used "This is she", or "This is her"? Pardon me, haven't read their books. – MycrofD Mar 1 '18 at 12:57

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