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I'm a user on the puzzling site, and I love to make puzzles. There's a particular kind of puzzle which describes the intended solution (usually a single word) by riddles. The riddle is worded in such a way that it seems that the word itself speaks.

Example

Word: Elephant

Riddle:

  1. Trees I use to walk and breathe
  2. Heavier than a boulder, lighter than a raven's feather.

Line-by-line explanation:

  1. Elephant legs compared to trees. Elephants breathe through the trunk (the body of a tree).

  2. Elephants are heavy, but also light grey.

Question: What am I?

This type of riddle is commonly terminated by the question:

What am I?

My puzzle is multi-layered and out-of-the-common. It consists of multiple riddles and wordplay is also involved. I want to end one of those riddles with something unique like:

What is me?

which sounds more enigmatic and interesting. In the puzzling world, you're permitted to bend grammar to your will, if it helps make puzzles better. I've other reasons for doing this beyond ELL, so they're better left unmentioned.

The real question

How to parse

What is me?

I know this is not usually correct. Grammatically, me should be the subject, is the be verb, and What the object, so this doesn't seem possible. But, what if me does function as the object?

When you point yourself out in the image, you say:

That's me. There's me.

which are answers to the unusual questions---

What's me? Where's me?

Why, in riddle format, can't "me" be the predicate for a subjective "what"?

  • good question. One idea: can something other than a given person ever be that person? Perhaps if it's definite. "A doctor is him," no. But "The doctor is him" seems okay if we knew there was a doctor but we were wondering which person it was till now. Similarly, if you see something you identify with, you can say "That's (so) me!" The same works if you see a face in a photo but haven't identified it yet. So perhaps it's when you have something specific in mind and are seeking a "someone" for it to be, you can. But in a riddle it's the other way round. Anyway, that's one possible explanation. – Luke Sawczak Jul 11 '17 at 3:53
  • Possible duplicate of When to use "I" and "me" in an answer – P. E. Dant Jul 11 '17 at 5:12
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    @P.E.Dant: Um, no. This question is not asking for the answer to the mentioned question, but a grammatical analysis, and therefore there is no possible way the dupe given is at all applicable — it isn't even talking about forming questions! – Nathan Tuggy Jul 11 '17 at 6:37
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    @L: It wasn't clear at all what Soha meant since it isn't the word that is speaking but a creature with a name. That's the conceit. It is interesting that she thinks otherwise (e.g. with ELEPHANT). – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 11 '17 at 12:07
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    But I like this question. – kitty Jul 11 '17 at 17:38
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First, notice that there's actually nothing inherently wrong with the grammar of "What is me?"

It appears without raising any red flags in at least two contexts:

— "I have a body, I have a mind... but what is me? Is it my thoughts? My will? My two hands?"
— "Why, your soul is you."
— "But, Father, how do I know that I have one at all?"

Notice that the answer to "What is me?" isn't "You are X," as it would be if the question were instead "What am I?" Instead, it's "X is you."

It can also appear a context where a wh- question replaces a previously stated subject in a declarative sentence without any syntactic movement:

— "Look, over there! That's a lion!"
— "What's a lion? I don't see anything!"

More importantly, there are many sorts of questions in which "what" refers to the subject of the verb, not the predicate:

What's up?

What's moving on the horizon?

What has two arms and four legs?

Therefore, here's what I find interesting in your question. Yes, it's correct to say that "What is me?" at the end of a riddle should be "What am I?" if "what" is the predicate of the copula, whose subject is "me" and hence should be in subjective case "I": "What am I?"

But what if we don't take that parsing for granted? That is, here's how I read the core of your question: Why, in riddle format, can't "me" be the predicate for a subjective "what"?

So we must add to our analysis.


We can start by noting the unusual behaviour when this sort of question is completed by a noun or pronoun.

Here is a sentence in which the subject is unambiguously inverted:

What are those things on the horizon?

"Those things" must be the subject given the conjugation "are". I have a strong reaction to the malformed question "What is those things on the horizon?"

But here's another sentence that, imagining that we didn't know the above, is ambiguous on the surface. Is the subject inverted or not?

What is that thing over there?

A patient examination will reveal that there are two possible ways to answer this question. The first analyzes "that thing" as the subject and "what" as the predicate:

That thing over there is an elephant.

The second way suggests that the true subject was "what":

"An elephant is that thing over there."


Bear with me as I examine that declarative sentence on its own merits, without reference to the question that produced it. "An elephant is that thing over there." This certainly is odd; but why?

A speaker might read it and assume that a poetic inversion has been made, a rather bold one, and that "an elephant" belongs at the end, as we saw before. All right, fair enough.

But another speaker might recognize this as another pragmatic format: definition.

Reading it that way, the sentence would be trying to tell us about elephants. That is, "An elephant is that thing over there" could have the same structure as "An elephant is a large mammal."

But this second definition strikes us as much better. And it seems to be because in the definition format, you can't cite a particular object, "that thing over there," for your definition. This can be seen even if we try a less vague object: "An elephant is this mammal here" doesn't work either.

Interestingly enough, when defining a term, as if it were an idealized Platonic form, it seems you can't use a particular object. You can even be grammatically definite, so long as you include some kind of predication or assignment over a set, not an individual creature: "An elephant is that big grey animal you see at the zoo."

Moreover, you can't have a particular thing on the left-hand side either and have it still be a definition. If I say "The elephant is a large mammal," either (a) "The elephant" means "An elephant" or "All elephants" anyway, or else (b) it's providing some information about a particular elephant (as if you were saying "The elephant is a baby").

All the above rules out such sentences as "An elephant is me," but we aren't done just yet!


There is another similar pragmatic format: identification. It's similar in structure, but the roles are filled differently. This time, you must have a particular object on the left-hand side.

Here's an example:

— "Six people killed in one month! Who can the murderer be?"
— "I've got bad news for you. The murderer... is me!"

Observe that if the thing on the left is not definite, the form becomes entirely ungrammatical:

A murderer is me!

However, you can have something indefinite on the right-hand side:

We've ascertained that the murderer is an escaped convict.

To take another example, you can also have a demonstrative pronoun on the left side:

— "Look at this old photo, Darlene. I've figured out who everyone is except that person there."
— "Who, that? That's me!"

(In fact, to broaden the topic for a second, another person could look over their shoulders and say, "Hey, I was there that day. Boy, all the faces are so dark. Who's me in this photo?")

Or to cite a James Ward song: "But there's one hope that keeps me alive, a hope that's clear and true. That hope... is you!"


Now, it seems to me that this latter form is the one in play in a riddle. We are trying to identify the thing alluded to.

If we slot this into the above identification form, we clearly see that it's just the same problem we encountered with "murderer": the left-hand side is not one particular thing.

An elephant is me!

This sentence is therefore impossible. But we may reverse it and satisfy the requirements of the format:

I am an elephant!

Now the left-hand side is definite and particular, while the right-hand side is indefinite. We saw that this was okay above with "The murderer is an escaped convict."


So my theory about this question is that the meaning is incorrect, not the grammar. Like other wh- questions, "what" is in limbo. It must be some particular thing, so it can't be on the left-hand side of a definition. But you don't know what you're referring to yet, so it can't be the left-hand side of an identification. And those are the formats that seem to be available for the last line of the riddle.

It's a difficult subject to feel one's way through. But that's because more than grammar is involved. Yes, there is a grammatical account of your sentence; the problem is that there are two. The question was why one of them is invalid in the context. That means it does need both parsing and interpretation, in the semantic sense.

  • Eh, you got some upvotes but that was a very long treatment of a mistaken idea. There's nothing wrong with the question "What am I?" and there is plenty of mistaken or awkward grammar ("...but what is me?" "Who's me in this photo?" "An elephant is me!"), sometimes intentional and sometimes not, mixed in your reply along with the actual cases where the object case works ("The murderer was me," "Which one is me?" "That's me!" "Who's supposed to be me in this book you wrote?"). The yous you mention repeatedly are all nominative cases and don't help your case at all. – lly Jul 13 '17 at 7:08
  • @Ily Well, to this editor's ears the examples you find mistaken or awkward are as natural as can be, and the "you" is unmistakably objective (even to take only the priest one)! But handled well or poorly, given a right or wrong account, what should be clear is that there are cases where "What is me?" comes up in conversation and passes muster whether or not we notice it when it does. Therefore, it's worth examining why the use cited in the question raises a red flag, not to mention in isolation. I don't think I'll see my way around to rejecting that premise of this answer. – Luke Sawczak Jul 13 '17 at 12:16
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Skipping over the unusual and mistaken lead-in,*

The real question

How [do you] parse

What is me?

I know this is not correct. I also feel so for reasons I can't explain. But grammatically, What should be the subject, is the verb, me the object. It should be correct then.

Why is "what is me?" not grammatically correct?

Because your grammar is mistaken, not correct.

First, is is a copula and not an action verb. In formal English, it has no object whatsoever. That's not dispositive, though, since informal English treats copula predicates as objects all the time. ("It's me" is far more natural for most speakers than the now-pompous "It is I".) The formal rules are a holdover from Latin, where it's much more necessary to keep things in the right case for people to understand you. In modern English, word position does most of that work.

Second and much more important, the first-person singular pronoun is the subject of your question. The word order is reversed because it's a question.

* Puzzles aren't poetry. Making them more difficult by needlessly nerfing your grammar is just 'bad design', not a 'unique feature'. That said, if you're really wedded to needing an off-brand phrasing, you should be asking "I am... What is it that I am?" or "There is a... What's that?" or "What is it?"

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What is me?

is actually equivalent to

Me is what.

what is the object or more precisely, the predicate. Me is the subject, and not the other way around.

That's why, the sentence isn't grammatically correct. The correct version of it is, therefore:

What am I?
I am what.

  • Good observation, but does it fully resolve the problem? "What" replaces a subject in "What's making that sound?", "What has two arms but four legs?", and "What's up?" In other words, what's the special quality of "What is me/other pronoun" that prevents a subject parsing? If you've gotten that far into the solution to your question :) P.S. Consider "I am that" instead of "what" for the last line. – Luke Sawczak Jul 11 '17 at 4:31
  • You answered your own question? – lly Jul 11 '17 at 4:37
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    @Ily She did, and someone with your rep score may recall that that is encouraged. – Luke Sawczak Jul 11 '17 at 4:39
  • @Ily It's just one answer; other answers are definitely welcome. – Soha Farhin Pine Jul 11 '17 at 4:47
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    @LukeSawczak Thanks for the link. I certainly did not know that. It certainly seems like the question should be phrased in a far different way if Mr/Ms Pine were just trying to document their thoughts on this point of grammar. It also seems like a topic whose root idea--if that's all that we're documenting here--will already have an answer elsewhere on the site. – lly Jul 11 '17 at 4:52

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