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It is I who need your help. It is me that needs your help.

Source Practical English Usage

In the first example, the verb be is followed by a nominative case of the personal pronoun and the relative pronoun is who that's functioning as a subject but taking need as a verb which agrees to I. In the second example the verb be is followed by accusative case me and the relative pronoun is that that's functioning as subject and taking singular verb needs that agrees to relative pronounthat.

Both examples have the verb be but different cases of the same pronoun and there is also different usage of relative pronouns. Why does the verb need to change its property?

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  • What examples?? Is that explanation in your first paragraph in the book?
    – Lambie
    Feb 12, 2022 at 17:34
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    In this cleft relative It is I who need your help has simple agreement. It follows the general rules for relative clauses, with the relative pronoun "who" being construed as 1st person singular by virtue of its anaphoric relationship to "I". But in the less formal It is me that needs your help the antecedent is in accusative case, and here the 1st person property is not carried over to "that", so the latter takes on the default 3rd person feature, i.e. it has 3rd person override.
    – BillJ
    Feb 12, 2022 at 17:59
  • Incidentally, the switch from "who" to "that" is not relevant. There's no requirement in your second example for "who" to be replaced with "that". It would be perfectly fine to say It is me who needs your help.
    – BillJ
    Feb 12, 2022 at 18:22

1 Answer 1

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Both sentences are pretty bad; they seem only to exist to create a grammatical problem

As an English learner you should first realise that the correct way to say this is "I need your help".

As nouns don't have case in English, we only have the vestiges of a case system in the pronouns. English allows for either the nominative or accusative case when pronouns are the complement in a sentence. Generally, using the nominative case is formal (nominative case is required by Latin, so this is an "educated" style)

I don't see much difference between the "who" and "that" relative clauses. Since "I" am a person, the "educated" style would be to use "who", so "It is I who..." seems to be consistent in style. The formal use of "I" requires a first person agreement in the verb. This makes this example super-formal.

Less formal use of "me" is consistent with "that". The first person agreement is only with first person subject "I". As there is no first person subject pronoun to agree with, the "default" is for the relative pronoun to be treated as third person.

It would not be wrong to say

It is I that need your help.

nor

It is me who needs your help.

So how do native speakers solve this problem? They cut the Gordian knot by saying "I need your help". This expresses the same idea.

It is very hard to judge what is natural in a deliberately unnatural sentence. I don't think there is much to be learned about English from analysing this example.

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  • Surely "It is I who..." has the additional meaning "I and not someone else"? Feb 12, 2022 at 17:25
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    I'd say it's a matter of style level. with "I" being formal and taking simple 1st person agreement, while less formal "me" takes 3rd person "needs", i.e. it has 3rd person override.
    – BillJ
    Feb 12, 2022 at 18:17
  • Just to clarify my last comment concerning the use of the term 'override: Since the antecedent in the second example is accusative "me", its 1st person property is not carried over to the relative clause, as it is in the first example with nominal "I", and thus the covert relative pronoun "who" takes on its default value of 3rd person. Hence 3rd person "needs".
    – BillJ
    Feb 12, 2022 at 19:16
  • Actually, I don't think the informal equivalent of this sentence is usually "I need your help" (with stress on "I"), but rather "I'm the one who needs your help." Feb 12, 2022 at 23:00

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