Wednesday, May 26, 2010

grammatici ordinis parvuli

Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, [ 1810–71] in his A Plea for the Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling (1881), pp.154–7. (link), champions the oft-maligned construction it is me from hordes of peevers:

192. The mention of the nominative and accusative of the personal pronoun seems not inaptly to introduce a discussion of the well-known and much controverted phrase, “It is me.” Now this is an expression which every one uses. Grammarians (of the smaller order) protest: schoolmasters (of the lower kind) prohibit and chastise; but English men, women, aud children go on saying it, and will go on saying it as long as the English language is spoken. Here is a phenomenon worth accounting for. “Not at all so,” say our censors: “don’t trouble yourself about it; it is a mere vulgarism. Leave it off yourself, and try to persuade every one else to leave it off.”

193. But, my good censors, I cannot. I did what I could. I wrote a letter inviting the chief of you to come to Canterbury and hear my third lecture. I wrote in some fear and trembling. All my adverbs were (what I should call) misplaced, that I might not offend him. But at last, I was obliged to transgress, in spite of my good resolutions. I was promising to meet him at the station, and I was going to write: “if you see on the platform ‘an old party in a shovel’ that will be I.” But my pen refused to sanction (to endorse, I believe I ought to say, but I cannot) the construction. “That will be me” came from it, in spite, as I said, of my resolve of the best possible behaviour.

194. Let us see what a real grammarian says on the matter: one who does not lay opinion, down rules only, but is anxious to ascertain on what usages are founded. Dr. Latham, in his admirable History of the English Language, p. 586, says, “We may .... call the word me a secondary nominative: inasmuch as such phrases as it is me = it is I, are common. To call such expressions incorrect English, is to assume the point. No one says that c’est moi is bad French, and c’est je is good. The fact is that, with us, the whole question is a question of degree. Has or has not the custom been sufficiently prevalent to have transferred the forms me, ye, and you, from one case to another ? Or perhaps we may say, is there any real custom at all in favour of I, except so far as the grammarians have made one? It is clear that the French analogy is against it. It is also clear that the personal pronoun as a predicate may be in a different analogy from the personal pronoun as a subject.”

195. And in another place, p. 584, he says: “What if the current objections to such expressions as it is me (which the ordinary grammarians would change into it is I), be unfounded, or rather founded upon the ignorance of this difference (the difference between the use of the pronoun as subject and as predicate)? That the present writer, defends this (so-called) vulgarism may be seen elsewhere. It may be seen elsewhere, that he finds nothing worse in it than a Frenchman finds in c’est moi, where, according to the English dogma, c’est je would be the light expression. Both constructions, the English and the French, are predicative: and when constructions are predicative, a change is what we must expect rather than be surprised at.”

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4 Comments:

Blogger Bob Hale said...

I agree, but that's just me. :)

June 5, 2010 at 11:15 AM  
Blogger Kalleh said...

I say "it's I," but I am fine with "it's me." It's just how I learned it.

However, I might have to disagree with this comment: "No one says that c’est moi is bad French, and c’est je is good." Doesn't the L'Académie française act as the "official authority" for French? Isn't French more prescriptive than English? While the academy is advisory only, we don't have anything like that.

June 7, 2010 at 8:40 PM  
Blogger zmjezhd said...

@Kalleh. That's his point. The proper way to say "it's I" in French is "c'est moi". It is incorrect in French to say "c'est je". And, languages are not prescriptive, people are.

June 8, 2010 at 4:47 AM  
Blogger seanahan said...

When someone says "It is I", it feels to me that they are being very pretentious. Now, this could be from a life time of only hearing this phrase from either pretentious grammarians or pretentious people making the statement. I'm sure if Kalleh said it I wouldn't feel like it was done pretentiously.

Would you also say "It is he"?

January 29, 2014 at 9:41 AM  

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