Between You and I

It’s quiz time. (Relax. You won’t be marked.) I want you to close your eyes (no, not yet!) and picture this scene:

You come home at night and reach into your pocket for your keys. Uh-oh! Where are they? You frantically go through all your pockets and don’t find them. Finally, you knock on the door.

“Who’s there?”

What do you answer?

(No “knock-knock” jokes, please.)

OK, now, ready? — close your eyes and picture the scene.

So what did you answer?

I’m going to get clobbered for this … but if you said “It is I,” you are either (1) my fourth grade English teacher, or (2) a volunteer grammar police officer.

If you said “It’s me,” you are in the mainstream — and you are also perfectly correct!

In Woe is I, Patricia O’Conner has a section called “Tombstones” for dead rules whose ghosts still hang around to haunt us. One of them is:

“Use It is I, not It is me. R.I.P. Here’s another ordinance that’s out of date.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.”

Bryan Garner (Garner’s Modern American Usage), the Texas Ranger of lexicographers, agrees: “Generally, of course, the nominative pronoun (here I) 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.”

Garner quotes a story by E.B. White about when he was a cub reporter: “One time a newspaper sent us to a morgue to get a story on a woman whose body was being held for identification. A man believed to be her husband was brought in. Somebody pulled the sheet back; the man took one agonizing look, and cried, ‘My G-d, it’s her!’ When we reported this grim incident, the editor diligently changed it to ‘My G-d, it’s she!’”

James Thurber, White’s friend and coeditor at The New Yorker, added an epilogue: “When the city editor changed this to … ‘It’s she!’ our wanderer moved sadly on to where they had a better understanding of people and a proper feeling for the finer usages of the English tongue. He became mess boy on a ship bound for Alaska, commanded by an old whaling captain, and manned by a crew who knew that a man says it’s her when he finds her dead.”

I once used the phrase “It was her” in a magazine article. The grammar gendarmes pinned me to the wall and tried to make me change it to “It was she.” I held my ground. So did her.

A close cousin to rigid pronoun correctness is hypercorrection. That’s what happens when people try to sound more educated than they are. Because they got corrected too many times for saying “Not me,” they know that “Me and Johnny went to school” sounds as though neither of them did. But they don’t know the rules. All they have is some notion that “I” is better than “me.” So, to put on airs and sound more educated, they generalize and say things like “Between you and I…”

Another relative to both over correctness and hypercorrection is the malapropism. The name comes from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in a 1775 play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The name is from the French, mal à propos — amiss or inappropriate. Word Detective says, “In her affected attempts to sound refined and cultured by using ‘sophisticated words’ she doesn’t understand, Mrs. Malaprop invariably mangles them — a reference to ‘allegories’ on the banks of the Nile River being a tame example.”

Copyediting.com gives another example: “‘Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!’ Translation? ‘If I apprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my vernacular tongue, and a nice arrangement of epithets!’”

In the 1930s, Fran Striker wrote the scripts for hundreds of radio adventure programs. On one show, the producer’s wife was a former high school English teacher. She read every script to make sure the hero spoke perfect English. In a scene where he knocked on the door and someone inside called out, “Who is it?” the English teacher wanted Striker to write, “It is I.”

Striker dug in his spurs. There was no way his Western hero was going to answer with a namby-pamby “It is I.” So he rewrote the whole scene.

Striker knew how to keep his job. He also knew that arbitrary rules aren’t necessarily the measure of good English. He knew when to be right was more important than to be correct.

Me too.


 

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