It’s Me, Isn’t It?

On Language

By Philologos

Published January 15, 2009, issue of January 23, 2009.
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David Pollack of New York has a question about comparative grammar. Why is it, he asks, that in English, if you knock on a door and are asked who you are, you instinctively answer “It’s me” even though grammar would seem to demand that you say “It’s I,” while in Hebrew you instinctively answer “Zeh ani” and would never dream of saying “Zeh oti”? (Ani is “I” in Hebrew and oti is its accusative form, like English “me.”)

One could, of course, seek to dismiss Mr. Pollack’s question as looking for logic where none need exist. Grammar is not a system that is foolproof. Many languages feature the occasional odd usage that seems to violate their own grammatical rules, and if “It’s me” might be a striking example of this in English, Hebrew has examples of its own. Such things don’t necessarily have rhyme or reason.

But this would be taking the easy way out. Exceptions to obvious grammatical rules often involve other, hidden rules that should be searched for before concluding that they do not exist. Indeed, there would appear to be a good reason that English speakers say “It’s me” and Hebrew speakers say “Zeh ani.” In English, the hidden rule is that the nominative pronoun “I” must always be followed by a verb, as in “I go,” “I am,” etc., and that when it isn’t, it changes to “me.” This happens in other situations, besides when knocking on a door. Ask a group of children, “Who wants a piece of candy?” and the answer is “Me,” not “I.” (Unless, that is, it is “I do” or “I want one.”) Wrongly told by someone that he saw you at the opera last night, you say, “That wasn’t me,” not “That wasn’t I.”

In Hebrew, on the other hand, no such rule could possibly exist, there being a common situation in which the pronoun ani never can be followed by a verb. This is because Hebrew has no copula, or present-tense form of the verb “to be,” so that “I am hungry,” for example, is the verbless ani ra’ev, “You are a woman” is at isha, and so on. To say “Zeh ani,” or simply “Ani,” when asked who is there by the person behind the door is thus entirely natural, since ani means “I am,” as well as “I.”

To which Mr. Pollack might object: But what about other languages, such as all European ones, that do have a present-tense form of “to be”? Why don’t they have the same hidden rule that English has?

Actually, many, if not all of them, do. One of them even follows the same door-knocker’s usage that English does. This is French, in which one also answers “C’est moi,” “It’s me,” to the question “Who is it?” In fact, French is far more inflexible in this respect, since saying “C’est je,” “It’s I,” would do more than make the speaker sound like a schoolmarm, as it would in English — it would make him incomprehensible. C’est je is as outlandish in French as zeh oti is in Hebrew.

And why doesn’t one say “It’s me” rather than “It’s I” in other European languages? The answer is, because those languages don’t use the “it’s” construction. They have different ways of telling the person behind the door who is knocking, all of which supply a copula for the pronoun “I.” Ask an Italian “Chi è?” and he will answer, “Sono io,” “I am.” Ask “Quièn es?” in Spanish, and you will get the same response: “Soy yo.” Ask a German. and you’ll be told, “Ich bin es” — “I am it.” In none of these cases is the first-person nominative pronoun made to stand without a verb, as it is in English “It is I.”

Still, English, I must admit, tends to use “me” in a nominative sense more than does Italian, Spanish, or German, in which children asked who wants a piece of candy would naturally answer “io,” “yo,” or “ich.” This is due, I suspect, to the influence of French, whose tendency to use moi nominatively, as we have seen, is even stronger than the parallel case in English. A phrase like “John and I are good friends” in French is “Jean et moi nous sommes des bons amis,” and it is quite common for French speakers to put moi and je together at the beginning of sentences for emphasis, as in “Moi, je veux manger,” “I want to eat,” or “Moi, je ne l’aime ça pas de tout,” “I don’t like that one bit.” This is an old feature of French, with which some of you may be familiar from the well-known medieval love ballad “A La Claire Fontaine,” with its lines “Tu a le coeur á rire, Moi, je l’ai a pleurer,” “You have a heart for laughing, I have one for crying.”

In any case, if anyone still feels guilty for saying “It’s me” because your fourth-grade English teacher told you that it’s wrong, it’s time to get over it. “It’s me” is perfectly good grammatical English. English grammar just isn’t what your fourth-grade teacher thought it was.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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