‘They were friends of Antony and I.’ Ouch!

Why is it wrong? Well, just try taking the word ‘Antony’ away in the quote above. You’d never say ‘They were friends of I’, would you?

It should be ‘mine’ in this particular sentence, but Keeley Hawes delivered this line in her well-practised cut-glass accent in Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets (TV series on the BBC in mid-2019). Keeley was playing a very upper-class woman in the series, so perhaps the writer thought it sounded correct.

Hypercorrect or over-correct

Actually, it is over-correct or ‘hypercorrect’. And it’s getting more common, too. For example, Benjamin Zephaniah, the Birmingham poet, said in a radio programme recently: ‘Today, you join Richard and I, here, in their home’. In standard English, it should be ‘Richard and me’, because ‘join’ is a transitive verb (one that needs an object, in this case ‘me’, to complete the meaning of the verb). ‘I’ is the word for the subject of verbs, not the object.

NOTE: in my blog posts, when I refer to standard English, whether it be British or American, it means the variety of English that is generally taught as the correct variety – in schools, colleges, and universities. Obviously there are many other varieties of English in use around the world, but here I only talk about standard English.

‘Who’s there?’ – ‘It is I.’

Another example of hypercorrection. I know teachers, especially in the US, who would always use ‘I’ in the sentence above, and indeed, correct their students if they said ‘It’s me’. Admittedly, it is perfectly correct grammatically to say ‘It is I’, because ‘I’ is the complement, not the object, of the verb ‘to be’ in this sentence, but surely the equally correct ‘It’s only me’ sounds much better – more natural. ‘It is I’ sounds embarrassingly formal, to me.

Now for the rules…

There are rules of grammar, although not all grammarians would agree about exactly what they are! Anyway, here goes:

  1. After the verb ‘to be’

The verb ‘to be’ (am, is, are, was, were, won’t, etc) is followed by a ‘complement’, the thing that completes the sentence. The complement may be a noun, a pronoun, a proper name, an adjective, or a phrase containing a noun, pronoun, proper name, or adjective. For example:

I am a blogger./This is Stephen./She is lazy./It is I.

I am a blogger about language./This is Stephen who lives next door. /She is too lazy to clear up in the morning./It was I who broke the glass.

Everything after the verb ‘to be’ is the complement in all these sentences.

BUT:

It’s me./It was me who broke the glass.

are equally correct, and more natural, especially in spoken English.

I recommend ‘me’ in both these sentences.

2. After a preposition (‘for’, ‘of’, ‘to’, ‘with’, etc)

It is never correct to say ‘for I’, ‘of I’, ‘with I’, etc, in standard forms of English. It should be ‘for me’, usually ‘of mine‘, ‘to me’, ‘with me’. That is why it’s a mistake to say ‘They were friends of Antony and I’. Because of the ‘of’, a preposition that can never take the subject form (‘I’).

The solution to this problem, if you are unsure, is simply to miss the name out, and test whether it feels right to you to say ‘They were friends of I’. I feel sure most people would intuitively feel that sentence is ‘wrong’. I hope so, anyway…