I Subject, Your Honor



In past discussions of who-whom and whoever-whomever, we passed along a handy memory aid: who (and whoever) = they; whom (and whomever) = them.*

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere unless we can tell a subject (they) from an object (them).

One reason that distinguishing between subjects and objects is so difficult can be traced to what’s called the subject complement, a fancy term for the B in A = B. In the sentence It is you, the word you is a subject complement: it = you.

Math teaches us that if A = B, then B = A. If it = you, then you = it. In the sentence It is you, the word you is a kind of secondary subject.

However, you stays the same whether it’s a subject or an object. Things get trickier with the subject pronouns I, he, she, we, they, who, and whoever, which all change forms when they function as objects (me, him, her, us, them, whom, and whomever).

A conversational sentence like It’s me is technically wrong, because me is the object form of I, when what we need is a subject complement. Therefore, It’s I would be proper English (it = I). Remember, if It is I, then I am it. Since no one says, “Me am it,” It’s me can’t be correct.

Look at these everyday sentences: It’s us. Wait, it was him. No, it has been them all along. But it could’ve been her. We hear these all the time—and every one of them is technically incorrect. In such sentences, informal speech tends to prefer object pronouns like me, her, and them over the formally correct I, she, and they. Who knows why? They just sound better, or something. For whatever reason, not many folks we meet on the street would say, “It’s we.” “It was he.” “It has been they.” “It could’ve been she.”

But no one can ever master whom and whomever without knowing when object pronouns in everyday speech should be changed to subject complements in formal English.

More next time…

This classic grammar tip was contributed by our late veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

* Actually, our previous handy aid was who = he and whom = him. We support using gender-neutral pronouns as we discussed in our post of January 15, 2020, 2019’s Word of the Year is Inclusive, not Divisive.

 

Pop Quiz

Make the following colloquial sentences consistent with formal English.

1. She’s just glad it turned out to be me.

2. The way I see it, it must have been them.

3. The culprits were Joe, Jack, Jake, and whomever else.

4. It ended up being her who the group could count on.

5. It seemed like them, but it was him.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

These answers are academically correct. But if you talk to your friends like this, you’re on your own.

1. She’s just glad it turned out to be I.

2. The way I see it, it must have been they.

3. The culprits were Joe, Jack, Jake, and whoever else.

4. It ended up being she whom the group could count on. (whom is the object of the verb count on)

5. It seemed like them, but it was he. (them is the object of the preposition like)

Posted on Tuesday, August 25, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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5 Comments on I Subject, Your Honor

5 responses to “I Subject, Your Honor”

  1. Hiromichi Watanabe says:

    Below is your explanation, but can we say “whomever” is the object of “to”?

    Quiz Results
    1. For each of the following, choose the correct sentence.

    Correct Answer: B We’ll give the prize to whoever calls in first.

    Explanation: “whoever” is the subject of “calls.”

    Your Answer: A We’ll give the prize to whomever calls in first.

    • Determining whether to use whoever vs. whomever is a little trickier than who vs. whom. You need to examine the pronoun’s position in the subject or the object clause. In the case of “We’ll give the prize to whoever/whomever calls in first,” although “whoever/whomever calls in first” constitutes the object clause, whoever is the subject of that clause. Please see Whoever vs. Whomever Revisited for more discussion.

  2. Frankie Snyder says:

    If only it were possible to have today’s teachers actually TEACH kids proper use of the language, but the majority of the teachers I know just don’t care. They respond that poor grammar is ingrained, and it’s not worth the effort.
    Would you please consider publishing an article about today’s publications’ use of “they,” “their,” and “them” when referring to an INDIVIDUAL? It drives me absolutely crazy, and I’ve written a few times to our local newspaper (The Advocate in Baton Rouge and other areas) about it. Apparently their editors don’t know and/or care about using the proper pronouns; nothing has changed.
    I truly enjoy these blogs!

  3. Vignesh Giridharan says:

    This is perhaps the easiest explanation of the use of subject complements in everyday sentences. Bravo, GrammarBook!

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