How to choose the pronoun after linking verbs?

We must put the same word after the linking verb that we would put before the linking verb, mustn't we?

Do you know who was the man under the mask? that man was I.

Another example:

But not one of them knew or guessed that if there was a man on this earth who knew better than everyone else that I was ridiculous, then that man was I, and that what I found all the more annoying was that they didn't know ... The Gambler and Other Stories

But I found a lot of examples where people had used it as following:

There was no way to prove — actually prove, really prove — that that man was me. The Illustrated Man

So, what are the rules and exceptions?

3 Answers 3


The matching rule you describe in your question ("We must put the same word after the linking verb that we would put before the linking verb") is correct, as far as it goes, and for a certain definition of "correct". It is the usage that was traditionally prescribed; the justification is that a linking verb like "to be" does not take a direct object (like the verb "to see") but takes what is called a predicative complement that describes the subject. As you see in your examples, some people still apply this rule in current usage.

(I say "as far as it goes" because the matching rule doesn't, for example, provide clear guidance about which form to use when the subject is in the genitive case, as in "my being ???" (we can't say *"my being his") or when there isn't any explicit subject, as in "to be ?? is punishment enough". I asked a question about these situations on ELU: “Being [he/him] is not easy.” Which is prescriptively “correct”?)

The thing is, most English speakers don't speak in a way that conforms to the matching rule.

In general, in ordinary modern speech, linking verbs like "to be" are always followed by the objective form of a personal pronoun.


  • I specified "personal pronoun" for a reason. This does not apply to the interrogative or relative pronoun "who/whom". The special objective form "whom" is not normally used at all in ordinary modern speech; instead "who" is used as a subjective and objective pronoun. So the traditionally prescribed form "Who am I" remains indisputably correct, and "Whom am I" is pretty indisputably wrong.

  • When a personal pronoun comes directly before the relative pronoun "who", many speakers tend to keep the personal pronoun in the subjective case. It's a bit unclear why, so I'll just give an example: "It is I who [did X]" is apparently more common than "It is me who [did X]". Information taken from Barrie England's answer on ELU, which itself has as the source the ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’.


When I was a child, we were taught to say, "It is I." Now, most people would say, "It is me."

Language changes and because of that, it also changes any dialogue in novels. Older/ or historical novels will reflect language in use at the time the novel was set in.

Today we'd use,

"That man was me." Or, "I was that man."


There isn't really a rule or exception.

Almost all speakers will use That man was me.

You can also use something like that man was I, or that man was he.

However, the second form is considered highly formal and somewhat archaic. It may be used in writing, but it's fairly uncommon in speech.

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