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July 11th, 2007

The grammar of it's just us

by Barbara Wallraff

David Kratz, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “In a column published earlier this year, you said regarding ‘It’s just us’ that you ‘know it’s grammatically incorrect.’ I wonder how it is possible for you to know something which actually is not true. In the sentence ‘It is just us,’ the subject is ‘it,’ the predicate is ‘is’ and the direct object is ‘us.’ Clearly, the second noun in that sentence should be in the objective case, and therefore what would be incorrect is ‘It is I.’ I realize that some people like to pretend that is more proper. But I think those are the same people who think ‘She gave the paper to Sue and I’ is correct. I can’t imagine any grounds for thinking ‘It is I’ to be correct.”

David, David, David: You’d look cleverer now if you’d phrased your remarks more politely -- for instance, “I don’t understand why you said ...” If you were right, you would still get credit for having one-upped me. Wouldn’t you feel good if I wrote: “Gosh, David, even after 20-some years as a professional editor; after having been the editor-in-chief of a newsletter for copy editors, the leader of seminars for them and a consultant to major reference books on English usage; and after having written two books of my own on English usage, I get all confused about grammar. Thank you so much for setting me straight.”

But you’re wrong. You are supposing that “is” is a transitive verb, capable of taking an object -- like, for instance, “know” in “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” where the object is “what you’re talking about.” It’s true that most English verbs are transitive or intransitive, and many can be both. For instance, in “You don’t need to tell me I’m being horrible to you. I know,” “know” has no object, so in this case it’s intransitive.

“Is,” though, is something else: a linking verb, which connects a subject not to an object but to a complement. (I’m simplifying the grammatical terminology slightly, but the principle holds all the same.) Complements, which may be nouns or adjectives, restate or describe the subject. For instance, in “You are misinformed,” “misinformed” is an adjectival complement that describes you. In “I am an expert on grammar,” “expert” is a noun complement that describes me. According to the rules of English, noun complements are supposed to be in the subjective case. That is, if they’re pronouns, “I,” “he,” “she,” “we” and “they” are grammatically correct, not “me,” “him,” “her,” “us” or “them.” Hence the problem with “It’s just us.”

No doubt this special characteristic of linking verbs does contribute to the trouble many people have with sentences like your example “She gave the paper to Sue and ...” But, of course, the grammar here is completely different. No linking verb is involved. In fact, this kind of sentence is easier to get right. All you need to know is that pronouns are grouped the way I just said, so if you’d say “gave it to us,” then “gave it to me, him, her or them” -- or “Sue and” any of the preceding -- would be correct too.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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