I’d like to take up an intriguing follow-up question on inverted sentences posted recently on my Facebook page by grammar enthusiast Marianne Freya Gutib. The question refers to my July 30, 2016 column where I picked the pronoun “they” as the correct pronoun in this inverted sentence that she presented: “The winners of the contests were (they, them).”
Marianne asked: “If that’s the case then, how many subjects are present in the sentence? Which is the subject and which is the predicate? [In such inverted sentences] we usually think of the subject as being in post-verb position. But according to inverse copular construction, the normal subject has inverted to a post-verb position, and the predicative nominal has inverted to the pre-verb position.”
My reply to Marianne:
Let me answer your first follow-up question first: “How many subjects are present in the sentence?” The answer is only one subject—the entity described by the noun phrase “the winners of the contests,” with the noun “winners” as the operative subject modified by the phrase “of the contests.” The predicate of that sentence is the pronoun “they,” linked to it by the linking verb “were,” which of course is the past-tense plural form of “be.”
Regarding the grammar of that inverted sentence, I identified “they” as a subject complement, which by definition is a word or phrase that follows a linking verb and describes or renames the subject of a sentence; in effect, it serves to provide more information about that subject. I then cited that in English grammar, the rule for pronouns as subject complements is to use their subjective form rather than their objective form.
I also pointed out that a telltale sign of a subject complement is that the information it provides is always preceded by a form of the linking verb “be,” which is the case in “The winners of the contests were they.” Thus, although it may sometimes seem or sound better to use the objective “them” in such sentences, as in “The winners of the contests were them,” this usage is actually grammatically incorrect.
Let’s now examine this notion you cited in your follow-up question: “[In such inverted sentences] we usually think of subject as being in post-verb position. But according to inverse copular construction, the normal subject has inverted to a post-verb position, and the predicative nominal has inverted to the pre-verb position.” (Just keep in mind that “copula” is simply a variant of the term “linking verb,” and “inverse copular construction” a variant of “inverted sentence construction.”)
You correctly described what happens in inverted sentences: the normal subject goes to a post-verb position and the predicative nominal goes to the pre-verb position. This reconstruction admittedly makes it difficult for nonspecialists to distinguish between the subject and predicate of a sentence, but this doesn’t really violate the fundamental rules of English grammar.
In the sentence you presented, “The winners of the contests were (they, them),” it’s clear that you correctly considered “(They, them) were the winners of the contests” as the normative sentence and “The winners of the contests were (they, them)” as the inverted sentence. However, whether a sentence is normative or inverted, we must always keep in mind that the pronouns it uses as subject complement should always take the subjective form rather than the objective form.
Thus, in the normative sentence, given the grammar rule I cited at the outset, “They were the winners of the contests” is clearly called for because “they” as subject is already in the subjective form. On the other hand, in the inverted sentence, “The winners of the contests were they” is clearly the correct usage because this time, “they” is the subject complement and so must likewise take that subjective form.
Next week: A subject-verb agreement peculiarity of inverted sentences.
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