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Grammar rules vs. evolving usage

February 16, 2010 |  6:50 pm

Columnone It is I, addressing a grammar question. Or should that be “it is me”?

Reader Paula Mochel of Studio City would argue that the first sentence is correct. She complained that the headline on Saturday’s Column One article by Robyn Dixon, which read “Now it’s just him and the refugees,” was ungrammatical:

“I would have failed my sixth grade grammar test, if I had written that headline. That it appeared on the front page, above the fold of a major newspaper is a dagger in the heart of everyone who values beautiful English. The rules are not hard compared to many languages. Can't one count on the Los Angeles Times to conform to the most basic rules of our language?”

According to Mochel, the headline should have read “Now it’s just he and the refugees.”

However, the language is evolving. And those hard and fast rules that were taught in school sometimes become a little squishy.

Most grammarians agree that this is one of those rules.

In “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage,” author Bryan A. Garner writes:

Generally, of course, the nominative pronoun is the complement of a linking verb: "This is she," "It was he." But "it is me" and "it’s me" are fully acceptable, especially in informal contexts.

To make his point, Garner quotes Norman Lewis’ “Better English”: “Both forms, ‘It is I’ and ‘It is me,’ are correct – one by virtue of grammatical rule, the other by virtue of common educated usage.”

Mignon Fogarty, author of “Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing,” addresses the issue on her blog:

The traditional grammar rule states when a pronoun follows a linking verb, such as is, it should be in the subject case. That means it is correct to say, "It is I," and "It was he who dropped the phone in shock when Jodie answered, 'This is she.' "

That is the traditional rule, but fortunately most grammarians forgive you for not following the rule. … Unless you're answering the phone for the English department at the University of Chicago or responding to a Supreme Court judge, it's OK to use what sounds right and therefore, "That's me" is an acceptable answer.

Patricia T. O’Conner, author of “Woe Is I,” includes this rule in a list of grammar myths on her blog, Grammarphobia:

Rule:  Use "It is I," not "It is me."

Here's another ordinance that's out of date. It's OK to use It is me, That's him, It's her, and similar constructions, instead of using the grammatically correct but more stuffy It is I, That's he, and It's she.

And as she says in “Woe Is I”:

Next time you identify the perp in a police lineup, feel free to point dramatically and say, "That’s him, Officer!"

Or in this case, the newspaper may point to a South African minister and say “It is him.”

-- Deirdre Edgar

Twitter: @LATreadersrep