Usage note: NomPred

Every so often, I’m brought up short by an example, in edited prose in a serious publication, of a nominative predicative pronoun that strikes me as deeply strange and unnatural. So it was yesterday as I read through the New York Times. In a piece by Alan Feuer (relevant sentence boldfaced):

[on-line 1/3] “One Brooklyn Man’s Lonely Journey to Jihad”, [in print 1/4] “Court Papers Detail a Drift Toward Jihad”
For years in Brooklyn, it was just he and mother, his alcoholic father having long ago abandoned them in Kazakhstan. She worked cleaning houses and was gone much of the day. He went to a large public high school, but spoke little English and had few, if any, friends.

Presumably, either Feuer or an editor was bewitched by the theory that predicative pronouns must necessarily be nominative (on the model of the hyperformal identifying formulas It is I and This is he), but in the specifying-it construction above, the pronoun case choice of native speakers would be accusative him, not nominative he.

It could have been worse. Suppose that Akhror Saidakhmetov (the subject of the story) had been abandoned alone in Brooklyn by his parents. Then we’d get:

For years in Brooklyn, it was just he, his parents having long ago abandoned him in Kazakhstan.

I would have thought that was totally beyond the pale, but then I recalled that serious writers have committed sentences as unnatural as this one. Take Lisa Cron, who describes herself as

a story analyst, speaker, UCLA Extension Writers’ Program instructor, and author of Wired for Story [who] has worked as a story consultant for Warner Brothers, the William Morris Agency, Village Roadshow, and Icon, and as a story coach for writers, nonprofits, educators, and journalists

and look at my 3/25/12 posting “Our fastidious authors”, which quotes Cron as having written “As I read it, I felt a rising sense of frustration for all the writers who aren’t she.” And where I noted:

English has a number of predicative constructions, and they don’t all work the same way (compare equational I’m not she/her with subject pseudocleft It was she/her who wrote the book); and the data are different for different person-number combinations (compare 1sg It is I / It’s me with 1pl It is we / It’s us and 3sg It is she / It’s her). The example from Cron is equational and 3sg, two factors that favor the accusative over the nominative, as does the informal style of Cron’s letter. She is fastidious but clunky.

That assessment was very kind. Now look at my 12/2/14 posting “Getting it all wrong”, in which I eviscerated Nathan Heller, the New Yorker reviewer of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, along the way citing Robert Lane Greene’s Economist response to Heller:

It’s time for a breakup. The person you have been seeing is lovely, but a relationship is not what you want right now. How do you break the news gently?

If you say “It’s not you, it’s me,” you are probably a native speaker of English or someone with a good command of how native speakers actually speak. If you say “It’s not you—it’s I,” you will quickly achieve the goal of making the other person not want to spend any more time with you. Yet this bizarre formulation is just how Nathan Heller of the New Yorker would have you speak

The New York Times and the New Yorker seem both to have an editorial preference for unnatural NomPreds, no doubt in the mistaken belief that this choice of pronoun case is the only correct one. They probably think that the accusative is a vulgar error, but in fact their piss-elegant NomPreds are.

Piss-elegant? Oh my dear, that’s not I!

(flickr screen shot by Joe Clark)

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