word order (was Re: Random DWJ discovery of the day)

Belben, Philip (Energy Wholesale) Philip.Belben at eon-uk.com
Wed Apr 6 09:18:44 EDT 2005

Roby, replying to me.

> I think the problem is that there is a rule about case that you don't
> clearly understand. It's not always clear in English when someone is

Hang on.  I think you have got the wrong end of the stick, here.  I
understand the prescriptive rules, if not perfectly, entirely adequately
to construct the supposedly correct forms in all the situations we are
discussing here.  I was trying to be descriptive, and analyse the forms
I actually _use_.

> > isn't English?  (Thinking about it, I would say "It is I" or "It's
> > me", but I wouldn't mix and match.)
> >
> Correctness here depends on the context of the question to which this
> would be an answer. It doesn't have anything to do with the
> contraction.
> Sentence 1 is an answer to the question "Who is there"; while sentence
> 2
> is an answer to "I wonder whom Jim is taking to the dance".

To start with, I wasn't talking about correctness.  I was talking about
the forms I actually use.  As an isolated sentence, I would almost
invariably say "It's me", even though I know that the complement after
"to be" requires a nominative.  As part of a longer sentence I would
almost always say "it is I", as in "It is I that am writing this."  (I
think that sounds ugly, but it is both what I would say and what I
believe to be correct.  Go figure!)

To go on with I dispute your distinction.  I claim that the prescriptive
rule, should we choose to follow it, demands "I" in both the cases you
mention.  The second is an elipsis for "It is I whom Jim is taking to
the dance", in which sentence "I" is still complementary to "It", linked
by "is", and "whom" is the only word that is the direct object of

An interesting point, which to me demonstrates the limitations of the
prescriptive rules, is what happens to this sentence in a conditional
construction with "That would be" instead of "It is".  AFAICT the
prescriptive rule demands "That would be I", but I say "That would be
me" and I believe everyone else I know does likewise.  Trying again to
analyse my own grammar, I may be influenced again by the distinction
between an isolated sentence and part of a longer one.  I at least seem
to have an aversion to ending a sentence with a nominative unless in an
obvious inversion.
> >[*]  I accept that "by whom was it invented?" is also grammatically
> >correct, and could be regarded as the basic form of that sentence.
> But
> >when I move "whom" to the head for emphasis, "by" floats to its other
> >natural position, directly after the verb.  I maintain - as, I
> believe,
> >do most descriptive grammarians - that it is entirely irrelevant
> whether
> >this is also the end of a sentence!  As regards "who" or "whom" at
> the
> >front of the sentence, "who" appears (to me) to be the natural form
> >because when we utter it, it doesn't yet know that it is governed by
> >"by".  But if I thought before speaking I'd probably say "whom".
> >
> Whom is correct in both examples, because the object case is required.
> It isn't about word order. You think it is about word order because
> usually the subject comes at the beginning of the sentence, but word
> order is not the reason the pronoun needs to be in the object form..

Once again, I WAS NOT TALKING ABOUT CORRECTNESS.  I am well aware that
the prescriptive rule requires "whom" in both cases.  But the natural
form (I used the word carefully, so as _not_ to claim that it was
correct) is not necessarily that generated by the prescriptive rules.
(Besides which, even Fowler points out that few if any writers have
actually observed the prescriptive rule for who and whom consistently)

I was trying to use this common expression "who was it ... by" to
illustrate the differences between prescriptive and descriptive grammar,
and I was offering word order as a possible DESCRIPTIVE explanation of
why we often say "who ... by" but seldom "by who".
Happy now?


PS a thought that only now occurred to me:  there are prescriptive rules
in music that are often taught in harmony or counterpoint classes.  In
the late 19th century these got so silly that it was often _taught_ that
Bach was not a good writer of fugues, because he seldom if ever kept to
the rules.  Such nonsense is no longer perpetrated, thankfully, but the
rules about harmony are taking longer to die.  FWIW Bach broke those too
more often than you might think.

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