Everybody learns in school that in conventional spoken English one uses "objective" forms of personal pronouns (me, us, him, her, them) for "predicate nominatives" where some conventional formal rules call of the "subjective" forms (I, we, he, she, they). Thus "It's me." rather than "It is I." But I only just noticed that there is another context in which even writers who are fastidious about formal rules use the objective forms where the rules seem to suggest the subjective should be used. Thus (quoting from a novel):

"What would you have done, sir?"

"Me? How can I answer that?"

One wouldn't say "Me would have done thus-and-so." but "I would have done thus-and-so." Yet one says "me" rather than "I" in sentences like that quoted above. So what do grammar books say about this and how does one explain it to foreigners learning English?

PS: It is being objected that this is like another question where someone asks why "Not me." rather than "Not I." is used in reply to "Who wants ice cream?". However, I think there are syntactic differences here.

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    You are asking that of me? You are speaking to me?
    – Hot Licks
    May 4, 2018 at 20:18
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    The basic rule is not just to use objective pronouns for objects and predicate nominals, but to use them everywhere except for subjects. If it's not a subject, it's objective. Just like French. May 4, 2018 at 20:47
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    When you get below the sentence level, it's rarely helpful or even sensible to pin subjective / objective labels on say pronouns. Treat 'Me' as an idiom here (possibly not conforming to expected grammar): do what almost every other Anglophone does. If it helps, imagine that 'Me?' comes from 'You're asking me?' rather than from 'What would I have done?' May 4, 2018 at 21:42
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    @JohnLawler - Actually, deciding whether to use the objective form or not is rather subjective.
    – Hot Licks
    May 4, 2018 at 21:49
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    @EdwinAshworth : The explanation via "You're asking me?" fails to convince me for reasons I explained in a comment above. But maybe saying that this is "below the sentence level" works, in conjunction with John Lawler's comment above. May 4, 2018 at 21:50

1 Answer 1


The closest that one prominent grammar book, CGEL, comes to addressing this question is in [14ii] below (p. 461).

While your particular case isn't exactly like any of [14] i-iii, I don't think it is any more different from any of them than they are from each other. In other words, I would say that your example could well be [14] iv. And so whatever is said below that applies to all of [14] i-iii, the same also applies to your case.

Constructions where nominative and accusative are in alternation


(d) Subject of (other) verbless clauses

[12]  i  a.  He was morose, she full of life.    b. He was morose, her full of life.
        ii  a.  What, he a republican?                  b. What, him a republican?

Example [i] belongs to the gapping construction (Ch. 15, §4.2); the nominative is readily used in formal style, while the accusative seems very informal or colloquial. Example [ii] belongs to the bare predication polar echo construction (Ch. 10, §4.8.3), which is itself generally a somewhat informal construction, so the accusative pronoun is more likely; nevertheless, a nominative, as in [iia], is certainly possible. There is also the verbless counterpart of the gerund-participial adjunct discussed in (b) above:

[13]   I knew people thought ours an unlikely alliance, I neat and quiet, he restless
          and flamboyant.

Again accusative me and him could be used as subject in a more informal style. In [12-13] the clauses, though verbless, nevertheless contain a predicative element. In constructions without such an element following the subject, nominative case is less likely:

[14]   i a. Gary took the call, not I.               b. Gary took the call, not me.
         ii a. A: Who ordered a taxi?   B:?I.        b. A: Who ordered a taxi?  B: Me.
        iii a. A: I'm going home.   B: *I too.        b. A: I'm going home. B:   Me too.

Few people would use a nominative in [i], fewer still in [ii], where it would sound excessively pedantic (even more so, probably, with a negative: ?Not I), and in [iii] it can be regarded as completely unacceptable. If the accusative is felt to be too informal for the context, the construction can easily be avoided altogether: I didn't take the call, Gary did; I did; So am I.[Whatever the case, the deictic pronoun I is much more likely in constructions like [14ii-iii] than the usually anaphoric he or she.]

As far as what to say to English learners...

When it comes to the subject of a verbless clause, the accusative is strongly preferred at least in the informal style. Sometimes this preference is so strong that the accusative became mandatory even in the formal style. Note the word 'sometimes', which raises the question: when, exactly, is the nominative mandatory/allowed/forbidden in the formal style? Unfortunately, as far as I know, no one (i.e. no linguist) has been able to satisfactorily describe this, especially not in terms of some sort of general rules, no matter how complicated, and so learners shouldn't hope for them. Instead, a learner simply has to be exposed to every kind of construction and learn what is mandatory/allowed/forbidden on a case-by-case basis.

Here are some general remarks from CGEL, (p. 458, boldfaced emphasis mine):

We look first at the contrast between nominative and accusative case, where we find a considerable amount of variation and instability in the system. There are a number of constructions where the nominative is associated with formal style, the accusative being strongly preferred in informal speech and writing. Because of the tendency of older prescriptive grammar to accept only formal style as 'grammatically correct', there has been a tradition of criticising the accusative alternants, and the stigmatism attaching to such accusatives has given rise to a certain amount of hypercorrection, with nominatives being used in constructions where the traditional rules call for an accusative. Or at least this is the situation with the personal pronouns and determinatives: with interrogative and relative who the reverse situation obtains, the accusative whom being the case associated with formal style.

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    CGEL is excellent here – thorough, clear and balanced. May 5, 2018 at 8:50
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    Yes, it's important to reiterate that syntax is a system, and is always changing fast everywhere. Stability is a matter of fluid dynamics, like a jet engine, not stasis. In English, especially, most of our syntax has been invented over the last 4 centuries to replace the morphology we lost, and there is a long tradition of new syntax overlaying old, which leads to isolated eddy currents like the uncommon I neat and quiet, he restless and flamboyant, which simply hasn't needed a rule yet -- nobody cares, really, and why should they? May 5, 2018 at 17:32

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