Question: Knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s me … umm … I mean, it’s I? Which is right and why? – From Daniel Silver
Answer: Fear not, dear joke-fraught reader, it is I,Jordan the Grammar Guy, here to answer your question. As a matter of fact, I already have.
So who’s at the door, you ask? Well, I am. To figure out why, we’ll be pulling out a tried and true grammar trick: sentence parsing.
Our sentence above, once we’ve put on our best superhero voice to formally announce ourselves, is, “It is I.” At the simplest level, we know that sentences need two things: a noun and a verb. “I am,” for example, is a perfectly acceptable sentence. “I” is the subject. “Am” is the verb. “Me am,” on the other hand, is only acceptable if you work with Barney Rubble or haven’t advanced your diet beyond pureed carrots (not that there’s anything wrong with carrots).
Though both “I” and “me” are personal pronouns, “I” is used as a subjective pronoun, while “me” is used as an objective pronoun. Figuring out which one to use comes down to the action of the sentence. To demonstrate, let’s use one of my favorite actions: eating.
If I am eating alone, then I am the subject. I am the one eating. Subjective pronouns are simple enough.
Let’s say, though, I’m eating with my friend Carolyn. Or, more accurately for this demonstration, let’s say that Carolyn is eating with me. Why are we using the objective “me” all of a sudden? The preposition “with” has changed the direction of the action. As a preposition, “with” requires an object. That object, in this case, is I.
It can be confusing at first, but the trick is to always look where the action is going. Let’s flip some sentences around and look at how that can change the pronoun.
Carolyn and I need to set up our dinner plans, so I call Carolyn. In this case, I am performing the action and Carolyn is the recipient. Of course, Carolyn could always call me, in which case I would become the recipient (thus requiring the objective pronoun “me”) and Carolyn would become the actor.
Now you could ask, since there is no preposition in the statement, “It is I,” why does is require a subjective pronoun? And it would be a good question. The answer is that when we come across linking verbs – words like “is,” “was” and “seem” – we use subjective pronouns. I remember this rule by flipping the sentence around, using the linking verb as the axis. For example, though the sentence, “It is I,” seems convoluted, “I am it,” makes a lot more sense than, “Me am it,” would. Or, “Me is it,” for that matter.
To return to the knock, knock joke, when someone asks who is there, the answer is, “It is I.” If it helps you to jump into your best superhero pose as you declare your presence, you have my blessing.
Or, you could always just say, “It’s me,” like the rest of the population would – but in your heart, you would know you were wrong.