Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Pronoun Choice: Predicate Nominative

Shirley from Spider Lake asked about pronoun choice in a specific situation. Her example: He didn’t do it; it wasn’t he, OR He didn’t do it; it wasn’t him. In formal use, it should be he.

That particular slot is known as a predicate nominative. It occurs after some form of the verb to be. The verb to be has many forms: is, are. was. were, has been, had been, etc. That verb is the equivalent of the equal sign: My name is Mike could be rendered as My name = Mike.

Since it signals equation, the right side must use the same case as the left side; they must match. In this case, the left side is in the nominative case, so the right side must be in the nominative case.

When you’re using a noun, there’s no problem. I am a retired teacher doesn’t have an alternate spelling. The nominative case and the objective case are identical:
  • I was a teacher.      [noun as predicate nominative]
  • I like my teacher.   [noun as direct object]
Pronouns change their spelling when they go from subject to object:
  • It is I  [pronoun as predicate nominative]
  • They don’t like me.  [pronoun as direct object]
But a word of caution: formal use usually doesn’t show up in ordinary conversations. You will find the rule described above being ignored with impunity.
  • Who’s the clown taking up two parking spaces?            I am he.  [formal]
  • Who’s the clown taking up two parking spaces?             It’s me.  [informal or colloquial]

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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