A subject-verb agreement peculiarity of inverted sentences

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Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

In my column last week, I discussed why the pronoun “they” rather than “them” is the correct form of the subject complement in this inverted sentence: “The winners of the contests were (they, them).” In reply to an interesting follow-up question on my Facebook page by grammar enthusiast Marianne Freya Gutib, I explained that the operative grammar rule in such situations is that in English, a pronoun acting as a subject complement always takes the subjective form whether the sentence is in its normative or inverted form.

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The normative or regular form of the inverted sentence, “The winners of the contests were they” is, of course, “They were the winners of the contests,” where there’s perfect subject-verb agreement between the plural subject “they” and the likewise plural past-tense form “were” of the linking verb “be.” In an earlier column, I pointed out that what unmistakably marks a subject complement is that the information it provides is always preceded by the linking verb “be” in the appropriate form.

We need to be aware, though, that inverted sentences in English have a subject-verb agreement peculiarity when their predicate is a noun phrase, and I would like to acknowledge that this must have been what was bugging Marianne Gutib when she raised her follow-up question about inverse copular or linking verb construction. However, this peculiarity doesn’t become apparent when there’s no difference in number between subject and predicate, as in the inverted sentence she presented, “The winners of the contests were they,” which, of course, has the normative form “They were the winners of the contests.” (In contrast, the inverted form has “the winners of the contests” as plural subject, the subject complement “they” as plural predicate, and the past-tense plural “were” as linking verb.)

But what happens when a normative sentence like, say, “Her pretrial antics are a needless complication” takes the inverted form? Do we say or write “A needless complication are her pretrial antics” or “A needless complication is her pretrial antics”?

This may come as a surprise to some, but when an English sentence is inverted, the form of the linking verb should agree with the number—and of course also with the tense—of the singular noun phrase to its left instead of the plural subject to its right. Thus, the grammatically correct inverted construction of the normative sentence “Her pretrial antics are a needless complication” is “A needless complication is her pretrial antics.”

Let’s look at another example for good measure: “Those women parading in swimsuits are definitely a pleasant sight” inverts to the form “Definitely a pleasant sight is [not are]those women parading in swimsuits.”

Perhaps a clearer, more practical way of describing this subject-verb agreement peculiarity of inverted sentences is that when the subject and predicate of a sentence differs in number, the linking verb agrees with the number of the noun phrase to its left. The normative “What I need is two-round trip bookings to Puerto Princesa,” thus, inverts to “Two-round trip bookings to Puerto Princesa are what I need.”

Even if no sentence inversion is involved, we must keep in mind that this subject-verb agreement rule in English normally also applies when the subject and predicate of a sentence are both in the form of noun phrases (as opposed to stand-alone nouns or pronouns) and differ in number or person as well. In such cases, the form of the linking verb “be” agrees with the preceding noun phrase—the one on the left of the sentence—even if that noun phrase is not logically the subject. Thus, we say that “The immediate cause of her unsettling predicament is the lewd video clips discovered in her cellular phone,” not “The immediate cause of her unsettling predicament are the lewd video clips discovered in her cellular phone.”

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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