Grammar nitpicks, descriptive linguistics, etc

It seems that the distinction between who and whom is increasingly relegated to written English, while who and that have become catch-alls in vernacular English.

And perhaps with that and which as well, though I have noticed that speakers from the UK tend to prefer which in conversation.

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I don’t think USian English speakers retain the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses at all when it comes to relativisers. It is more or less random whether a USian English speaker users “that” or “which” for a relative particle and even in written language they rely more on the presence or absence of a comma to indicate whether the clause is restrictive or nonrestrictive.

What I meant is that US speakers tend to avoid using which entirely, unless they are using it as the start of an adverbial clause, which is quite common, or trying to sound smarter by using the less commonly used word, even though this is almost always incorrect usage.

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Right, but the point is that “that” is prescriptively used for restrictive relative clauses and “which” is prescriptively used for nonrestrictive relative clauses. If you don’t know the difference then it is hard to tell which one you should be using.

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Yes, but nonrestrictive relative clauses are not very commonly used in everyday parlance (except with where or when), so a person who does not understand the distinction (and I doubt that many people do understand or even really think about the distinction) is generally safest just sticking with that. I think that US speakers do tend to just stick with that, while UK speakers seem just as likely to use either for nonrestrictive clauses.

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That’s an empirical issue that I don’t really have access to any good spoken corpora to find out. Your instinct seems rightish to me.

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I’m kind of disappointed I missed the earlier discussion about case marking in copula constructions. I appreciate @Jesse13927 trying to steer it over here.

Prescriptively, it is always taken as a given that 1. is better than 2.:

  1. I am I, Don Quixote.
  2. It’s(a) me, Mario.


  1. It was she who did the thing.
  2. It was her who did the thing.

I’m not sure I buy it. As when we were talking about “whom” a few posts up, it seems to me that nominative case marking in English has devolved to the point where it really is only a redundant marker of being the only pronoun in the subject position. Even stylistically I would think that sticking to 1. over 2. would mark the speaker or writer as a very middle-brow pedant rather than an actually accomplished writer.

Clearly it isn’t the case that all participants in a copula must always be marked nominative.

  1. ?Sarah is she. (Pointing)
  2. Sarah is her. (Pointing)
  3. *I’ve seen her play Lady MacBeth a couple times. I saw her be she at Shakespeare in the Park last year.
  4. I’ve seen her play Lady MacBeth a couple times. I saw her be her at Shakespeare in the Park last year.

Does anyone actually think that 5 is either grammatical or aesthetically pleasant?


With Sentences 3, 4, 5 and 6, the verb is a be-verb, meaning that the pronoun is a complement, rather than a subject or an object. If the verb were “play,” then “her” would be an object and therefore correct. I would tend to agree that complements should also be objective (her/him/them) in most cases.

I think that it becomes tricky in sentence structures such as, “It was I who…” because, although “I” is being used as a grammatical complement, “It” is being used merely as a dummy subject, while the real subject is clearly “I.”

Perhaps this is why we say, “This is she” or “I am he” on the telephone: because the true subject is the name to which the pronoun points.

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Every example is with a copula, which prescriptively you have accurately characterized but their point was to show that the prescriptive rule is bad. Are you claiming to prefer 5 to 6?

Sorry, I should have been more clear. When I said that complements should be objective in most cases, I meant that “her” is correct in examples 3 through 6 because they are complements to other words that are subjects. I should have said, “If the verb were 'play,” then ‘her’ would be an object and therefore more obviously correct."

In the “It was I” or “This is she” examples, I am saying that the “It” or “This” are dummy subjects, and that the “I” and “she” are the de facto subjects of those sentences.

In other words, I think that the prescriptive approach actually does support what you are saying: that pronouns following a copula should be treated as complements (i.e. the same as objects) except in the cases where a dummy subject is used.

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Ah, I misread your previous statement. Sorry. I agree with you. Yeah, cross-linguistically copula constructions are really weird with regard to case marking. A lot of languages don’t even have an explicit “be” verb in these things at all. It isn’t surprising that the grammar is so unstable in English.

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English has a lot of rules that, I’m sure, make perfect sense; it’s just that these rules have never really been definitively defined or explained. In both writing and speaking, though, form must never take precedence over substance, and poking around with the rules is very much the work of authors and poets.

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Interestingly there is a current case where an attachment ambiguity had an impact on current events. An attachment ambiguity occurs in a sentence like “I saw the boy with the binoculars”, which could either mean “I used binoculars to see the boy.” or “I saw a boy who had binoculars.” The ambiguity is whether the prepositional phrase “with binoculars” is supposed to “attach” to the “the boy” or to “saw”.

Evidently when SurveyUSA was polling for the recent recall election in California they asked a question to determine if a survey participant was a likely voter. The question they asked was “Do you plan on voting in the recall election to remove Gavin Newsom from office?” This has two possible interpretations,

  1. “There is an election to remove Gavin Newsom from office. Do you plan on voting in it?”,

which is what SurveyUSA evidently intended and

  1. “Do you plan to remove Gavin Newsom from office in the upcoming recall election?”

So what happened is that they asked this question and democrats who did not want Newsom removed would say “No” because they interpreted the question as meaning 2. rather than 1. And thus Survey USA said that they were not a likely voter and comparatively few of their likely voters supported keeping Newsom in office.

This made it look like the election was going to be much closer than it was. I’m guessing that this probably actually helped Newsom with turnout.


I had a little bit of trouble parsing this headline.

The sentence is actually ambiguous between situations like:

  1. John mowed my lawn. I paid John to mow my lawn.


  1. I watched a movie. I paid the movie theater to watch the movie.

For whatever reason, I kept trying to parse the headline as though it were like 1. rather than 2, which was a confusing and even more horrible interpretation. I suspect that constructions like 1 are more frequent than those like 2.