I Subject, Your Honor

Last month, in discussions of who-whom and whoever-whomever, we passed along a handy memory aid: who (and whoever) = he; whom (and whomever) = him.

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

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…

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)

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

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12 Comments on I Subject, Your Honor

12 responses to “I Subject, Your Honor”

  1. Ottoman says:

    Is it “Your Honor have erred” or “Your Honor has erred”?

  2. Anthony says:

    Is it who or whom in the following sentence: “Most of us are taught to believe that we are who/whom we are called”? Thanks.

    • The correct choice is whom because it becomes the object of the relative clause we are called whom. Otherwise, we would have a double subject in the clause—both who and we. Note the difference between your sentence with that final clause with a sentence such as Most of us are taught to believe that we are they/them (the correct choice in this case would be they).

  3. M G says:

    Is it whoever or whomever in the following sentence: “And we value the opinions of average people, whoever/whomever they happen to be”? Thanks!

    • Whoever they happen to be is correct. The pronoun should be subjective in your sentence because it must agree with “they,” the subject of the verb phrase “happen to be.”

  4. Kim says:

    Is it “Your Honor” or “your Honor” when it does not appear at the beginning of sentence?

  5. Sanomsim says:

    I have a question about I or me for this case
    “It is …………[I/me] they want to punish, not you.”

    I think It should be “me” because They want to punish me.
    Is it correct?

    Thank you for the best grammar rules on your website.
    They are very helpful to me.

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