Many years ago, back when I used to answer my land-line telephone, I found myself in a conundrum. I realized that, when a caller asked, “May I speak to June, please?” I would answer “This is she.” But I couldn’t for the life of me explain why. Why did I use the subject form, “she,” for a pronoun in a spot that seemed to call for the object form, “her”? I had no idea.
I tried “This is her” on for size. It sounded funny. Worse than funny. Wrong. I went back to saying, “This is she,” but I didn’t feel good about it. I felt like I was using fancy, formal grammar I didn’t even understand. I felt like a fraud.
I asked around, quizzing co-workers at the newspaper where I then worked if anyone could explain why it’s standard to say “This is she” instead of “This is her.” None of the writers or editors could. But an administrative assistant, one of those stunningly competent workers who hold whole entire companies together but never get proper credit or compensation, threw a term at me: predicate nominative.
Those two words were all I needed to know about why we often say, “This is she,” plus they contained a larger lesson about grammar in general.
When I researched the predicate nominative, I found out that this term describes how we often use a subject form instead of an object form after a verb of being like “is.” The term “predicate” refers to the fact that it’s in the latter part of the sentence and “nominative” is related to the nominative case, which essentially means a subject.
So “predicate nominative” suggests the subject is restated in the predicate. For example, in “This is she,” the subject of the sentence is the pronoun “this,” but the “she” in the predicate refers right back to “this.” They’re one and the same.
This structure can take other forms, too, as in “The culprit is he,” in which “the culprit” and “he” refer to the same person. Or “It is I,” where “it” and “I” refer to the same thing.
A similar sentence recently prompted an email from Jim in Glendale, who had come across a sentence in the New York Times that ended “...only to discover it was not him.”
Jim, who to my surprise knew the term “predicate nominative” and how it works, wanted to know what I thought about ending that sentence with “him.” After all, this is a classic predicate nominative structure, with “it” followed by a form of “be” followed by a pronoun. But instead of using the subject pronoun “he,” the editors went with the object form “him.”
This brings us to the larger lesson about grammar that I got when I first looked up the term “predicate nominative.” All the grammar and usage books I read described the predicate nominative as something English users do. None, not one, described it as something they should do. None even implied that it’s wrong to use an object pronoun like “him” or “me” after the verb. They merely described how English speakers and writers have, for centuries, used subject pronouns in these sentences.
And that, I discovered, is what grammar is. It’s not a list of rules one must follow. It’s an analysis — a mechanical study — of people who put words together to form sentences. That’s why, in fact, it’s not wrong to say “This is her.” It’s just widely considered to be less formal and, in many people’s minds, less appropriate.
So the New York Times made a perfectly acceptable choice when it followed the words “It was not” with “him” instead of “he.” Grammatically, “he” would have been fine, too. But in this case, an informal tone was as good a choice as any.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.