In the book <<Have Space Suit - Will Travel>>, I read:

"That was I."

It doesn't sound quite right to me, so is it correct? I would use "me" instead of "I".

Note: This book was suggested by my english teacher, so I don't get why a published and suggested book would have a grammar mistake.

  • RE: I don't get why a published book would have a grammar mistake. Several reasons, the foremost being that any book with a quotation may have a grammar mistake. Not everyone speaks with impeccable grammar.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 9:17

4 Answers 4


There is a difference, unfortunately, between what can be called the natural grammar of English and the "formal" grammar that has been imposed upon English. You are quite correct in believing that "[t]hat was me" feels more correct than *[t]hat was I"; the "me" version follows the natural grammar of English.

However, there was a period in the past when two great circumstances came together to do what can only be described as significant damage to English, at least in formal or "standard" settings. English was, at the time, establishing itself as a language of power and influence over a vast territory, a language that would be worthy of use when discussing things that "really mattered". At the same time, one could hardly call a people educated if they couldn't read and write Latin and Greek. English had spent the last several hundred yeaars losing most of its inflections, and "respectable" languages (like Latin and Greek) were full of them, having both conjugated verbs and declined nouns. By comparison, English seemed to have very few rules, and what rules there were in English didn't transfer easily to the Classical languages.

A few scholars of note took it upon themselves to kill two birds with one stone by "fixing" the "broken" parts of English. They believed (probably correctly) that there was a sort of Universal Grammar, and were under the impression (definitely incorrectly) that this Universal Grammar would look a lot like the grammar of Latin and Greek. One of the earliest works in this vein was Hugh Jones' charmingly-titled Accidence to the English Tongue, chiefly for the use of such boys and men, as have never learnt Latin perfectly, and for the benefit of the female sex; also for the Welch, Scotch, Irish and, foreigners. Most of the blame, though, can be laid at the feet of Robert Lowth (A Short Introduction to English Grammar, written in 1762) and Lindley Murray (English Grammar Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners. With an Appendix, Containing Rules and Observations, for Assisting the More Advanced Students to Write with Perspicuity and Accuracy, written in 1795) and those who followed on from their work.

Among other things, these people decided that English should use the Latin rules for identities; one would say It is I because "it" and "I" represent the same entity (thing, person), so if "it" is the subject of the sentence, then "I" must also be treated as a subject. (That is commonly called "confusing the map with the territory". Words can represent the same thing in the real world without playing the same role in a sentence.) It is not, and never has been, a real rule in the English language, but that doesn't matter. What does matter is that it was in books written by people who were seen as authorities, and those books have guided education and the sensibilities of educated people for the past three hundred years or so.

The result is that while almost nobody says It is I in conversation, an awful lot of people will write It is I because it is what was drilled into them in school. It is almost certainly wrong by the natural rules of English, but if you lose marks for putting things the right way and all of the "respectable" books use the version that feels wrong to you, eventually you will come to accept that the sky is red no matter what your eyes tell you.

  • 1
    I cannot help but think of Monsieur LeClerc whenever I hear It is I...
    – oerkelens
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 11:46
  • @oerkelens - ...or Hyacinth Bucket. Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 11:54
  • Google Ngrams shows 'That/that was me' has shot up since 1970, whereas 'That/that was I' has declined but is still used. Also, 'It/it is I' is still more common than 'It/it is me', but likewise 'It's/it's me' has shot up in use from about 1970. 'It's/it's I' is very uncommon. At best we can say that it's a formal/written v informal/spoken distinction.
    – Sydney
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 12:04
  • 1
    The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage has examples of "it is I", "it is he", etc., from the 17th century, which was before your two grammarians, so you can't blame everything on them, and what's more, these examples were from texts written for the stage, so it's possible that some people at least really did speak like that.
    – Dangph
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 12:10
  • @Dangph - I did say "among the earliest". And if you can look at the likes of Bacon and Marlowe and tell me that the Classics and classicists did not have a substantial influence in theatre, then you're being wilfully obtuse. Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 12:13

The sentence is correct.

I had the same doubt but then I read it in Swan's PEU. In general cases, subject pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, and they) are used if they rename the subject. And, they will follow to be verbs such as is, are, was, were, am and will be.

For example...

It is him he.
It is us we who are responsible for the decision to downsize.
This is her she speaking.

In the same way,

That was me I.

Nice question! +1

  • In practice, I highly doubt you would attract and attention by using the accusative, though
    – jimsug
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 8:05
  • You aren't claiming that "It's him" is incorrect, are you?
    – user230
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 11:23
  • @jimsug I did not get what you said!
    – Maulik V
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 11:35
  • @snailplane No. I find many instances writing that way. But as I learned, I prefer putting the subject pronoun there.
    – Maulik V
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 11:39
  • The still popular assertion that their exists correct English grammar,existing independently of the language's usage - and perhaps somehow above it, is discredited.
    – doc
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 11:52

These days you'll hear "that was me" almost 100% of the time. Discreet use of "That was I," or even, "Mea culpa,that was I, I'm afraid," can be carried off elegantly by particularly good speakers of English. (Stephen Fry comes to mind). Others, like you and me (!) should stick to common usage rather than correct usage; otherwise we risk being accused of being pretentious.

  • 1
    Common usage is correct usage.
    – user230
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 11:15

That should be "That was me" instead of "That was I".


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .