Pronoun case in the Thames Valley CID

From S4 E4 (“Masonic Mysteries”) of the ITV detective procedural tv show Inspector Morse, an exchange between Morse and his sergeant, Lewis:

(1) Morse: It’s me he wants, it’s me he’s going to get, or rather, it’s me that’s going to get him…

(2) Lewis: Shouldn’t that be: “It’s I who am going to get him”?

It’s all about pronoun case (Acc me vs. Nom I) in it-clefts: roughly, identifying clauses with

subject it, a main verb BE, a predicative NP, and a relative clause missing an NP (the relative clause can have relativizer ∅, that, or a WH-pronoun like who)

— in these instances, clauses supplying the answer to the questions “Who does he want? Who is he going to get? Who’s going to get him?”

And, this being Britain, it’s also all about social class.

Now about the program, which I’ve been watching in sequence via Netflix (after catching an episode here, an episode there, on American public television). From Wikipedia:

Inspector Morse is a British detective drama television series [on ITV] based on a series of novels by Colin Dexter. It starred John Thaw as Chief Inspector Morse [of the Thames Valley CID, headquartered in Oxford] and Kevin Whately as Sergeant Lewis. The series comprises 33 two-hour episodes (100 minutes excluding commercials) — 20 more episodes than there are novels – produced between 1987 and 2000.

… Morse had ‘highbrow’ passions: music (especially opera; Mozart and Wagner among his favourites), poetry, art, the classics, British real ale, classic cars, and cryptic crossword puzzles. When seen at home Morse is usually listening to music on his Roksan Xerxes record player, solving a crossword, reading classic literature, or drinking ale.

So: upper-middle-class by education, interests, attitudes, and language, but not by occupation or money. On matters of language, Morse has strong explicit opinions, but they’re those of a person of his class, sure of the rightness of his judgments, without regard to where they come from. Only occasionally does he appeal to authorities, or work through “grammatical reasoning”; he has intuitions about the way things are done, should be done, and he trusts them.

And he opts, firmly, for Acc predicative him in his it-clefts in (1) — corresponding, roughly,  to the examples in (6) in my summary of Tyler Lemon’s undergraduate thesis on this blog on the 15th:

(TL6) a. It was {?she/her} that won the contest. b. It was {?she/her} that John saw.

The differences between (1) and (TL6) are considerable, and some of them are surely significant, but the general drift is that Acc is entirely standard in the predicative slot in it-clefts, and Nom is dubious, but does occur in texts and is accepted, or even preferred, by some speakers. One of these would seem to be Sgt. Lewis, as indicated by his comment in (2), a version that almost surely doesn’t represent the instincts Lewis would have had from childhood, but instead shows the consequences of instruction in school grammar. Lewis started out working-class, but he’s been bettering himself. He might not have any Latin, or know anything about classical music or scientific theories, but he’s a trove of practical knowledge of all kinds (including knowedge of computers that Morse lacks), he’s a sharp observer and clear reasoner, and he reads people a treat. When he eventually gets his promotion to Inspector, it’s well deserved.

On Lewis, from Wikipedia:

The background and personality of Lewis – a working class, easygoing [young] family man with a Geordie accent [from the Tyneside region and adjacent areas of northeast England, centered on Newcastle; Lewis is in fact from Newscastle] (in the TV series; he is Welsh [and in his 60s] in the novels) – is frequently contrasted with that of Morse – Oxford educated, RP-accented, lifetime bachelor. Morse frequently uses these differences to insult or demean Lewis, perhaps from Morse’s point of view in a playful manner, but Lewis is often not amused by the jabs.

The Geordie accent is a bit muted, but there’s no mistaking his class background, from a whole series of linguistic and other indicators (his suits are shiny, for example). Morse is regularly treated haughtily by upper-class types: the police (Morse included) are no better than tradespeople, after all, but Lewis is a couple grades down from Morse, and the upper-class twits are inclined to refuse to deal with him at all, on the grounds that he’s nothing but a tradesman’s boy and they want the boss. Lewis is remarkably equable — the character is a truly good man — but even he occasionally seethes. In “The Day of the Devil” (S7 E2), Lewis addresses a haughty old man:

Lewis: Mr. St. John…

Old Man: SINjin. [as in St. John Perse, pronounced SINjin Purse]

Lewis: I’m Detective LewISS, and …

(Rough translation: Stuff your poncey pronunciations, ya old fart.)

Morse and Lewis, with Morse’s beloved car, a Jaguar Mark 2:

But back to our pronouns. (1), (2), and (TL6), repeated with mark-ups:

(1) a. Morse: It’s me ∅ he wants ___, b. it’s me ∅ he’s going to get ___, or rather, c. it’s me that ___’s going to get him…

(2) Lewis: Shouldn’t that be: “It’s I who ___ am going to get him”?

(TL6) a. It was {?she/her} that ___ won the contest. b. It was {?she/her} that John saw ___.

The predicative pronoun and the relativizer are both boldfaced, and the position of the missing NP in the relative clause is shown by underlines. Aside from the lexical content of the relative clauses (which is not irrelevant, alas), there are at least three possibly relevant variables: the person and number of the predicative pronoun (1sg in (1) and (2), 3sg in (TL6)); the relativizer (the WH-pronoun who in (TL6), ∅ and that otherwise; and the function of the missing NP within the relative clause (variously subject (1c, 2, TL6a) or direct object (1a, 1b, TL6b)). Two of these certainly play a role in the reactions people have to some of these examples.

First, many schools (and usage manuals) have taught that all predicative pronouns should be Nom (in the belief that this is how things would be framed in Latin, or in the belief that since predicative pronouns are coreferential with the subject, they should be Nom (like subjects). This is “grammatical reasoning” with a vengeance, all a priori, and it’s what leads people to say, and write, It is I (in various contexts), which has become a kind of fixed expression that kids are taught to use.  Lemon chose examples with 3sg rather than 1sg intentionally, to play down this effect. But with Morse and Lewis we’re stuck with 1sg, and Lewis seems to been subject to some prescriptive pressure for Nom in predicatives, part of his rise into the middle class.

Second, Nom is the case for subjects, Acc for objects (as the simplified school rule goes), so — people reason — if a predicative in an it-cleft isn’t always Nom, then it should be Nom or Acc depending on the function of the missing NP it’s linked to in the relative clause. That is, (1a) and (1b) should have an Acc because the missing NP is a direct object, while (1c) should have a Nom because the missing NP is a subject.

And that leads Lewis to go for Nom in his re-casting of (1c), which then starts:

It is I who …

(the choice of who rather than that is another matter, which would take us far afield). But then if you’re speaking or writing this sentence, you have to produce a verb form for the relative clause, a form of the verb BE. Well, the reasoning goes, the missing (“understood”) subject is 1sg, so the verb form should be am, and indeed this is widely recommended on advice sites as the only correct form, with It is I who is … labeled as ungrammatical.

Morse’s version (1c) goes for Acc me, relativizer that, and the default 3sg verb form is (yet another topic, default agreement forms, that would take us afield) — It is me that is …   and then throws in Auxiliary Reduction in both the main and the relative clause for the sake of informality: It’s me that’s

That’s where I’d go too, though I wouldn’t insist on AuxRed (however much I enjoy it; I’ve been studying it for 50 years, and I’m not done). And if you demand that I justify this version, I would say (with Morse) that I shouldn’t have to, it’s how English works for me and a great many others. For Morse, that’s the end of it. For me, the linguist, the task is to say what my system is, and what other systems there are.


One Response to “Pronoun case in the Thames Valley CID”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    An interesting sidelight is that in the follow-on series Inspector Lewis, in which Morse has died and Lewis has his old job, his younger sidekick, Sergeant Hathaway, is the one who is more highly educated and has the RP accent which produces subtle tensions of a somewhat different sort (since the more working-class Lewis outranks him).

    (And then it gets more complicated in the currently-airing final season, when Lewis has retired, Hathaway has the Inspector job, but then Lewis is recruited to come out of retirement to “help out”.)

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