Language Column Bone to Pick

Dear Mr. Schiller:

Our English teacher regularly reads your weekly language column to us to solidify the rules of grammar that we have learned. But when he read your column to us this week, [“Nominating the Predicate,” January 10/12 Teves] we were aghast (vocabulary word!). So we have a bone (or two or a whole skeleton) to pick with you.

First, you state that in the sentence, “Mordechai ate the chopped liver,” the predicate is “Mordechai ate.” Now, that is not correct.

Every sentence can be divided into two parts: the subject and the predicate. The subject is the noun (or pronoun) along with any modifiers which tell who or what is doing the action of the verb, while the predicate consists of the verb, its complement (if any), and its modifiers (if any). Thus, “Mordechai” is the subject and “ate the chopped liver” is the predicate.

Second, in the sentence “It was he/him Sam bullied,” you conclude that it should read “It was HIM Sam bullied.” We were taught that such a sentence consists of two clauses — the main clause and a subordinate clause. Because the verb of the main clause is the linking verb “is,” the pronoun following it is its predicate nominative, calling for the nominative form of the pronoun — “he.” This is followed by the subordinate clause which begins with the “understood” relative pronoun “whom,” which functions as the direct object of the verb “bullied.” So the sentence should read, “It was HE (whom) Sam bullied.” We discussed sentences like this one extensively in class this year, and we all agree that we are correct.

So, please enlighten your readers to this correction because it may be an inyan of lifnei iver.

Sincerely,

The students of Rabbi Schonbrun’s English 10 classes of Mesivta Yesodei Yeshurun, the high-school affiliate of Touro College

Mr. Schiller responds:

I am proud to enjoy a position of honor in your education. Thank you for your astute reading … and for keeping me on my toes.

As for the first charge, I plead temporary insanity. I was overcome by the tsunami of grammar analytics and lost my grip on the rules.

An editor who has saved my skin in the past made the same observation. Unfortunately, she saw the error only when she read the paper.

“You’re a scream,” she wrote. (I hope that was a compliment.) Then she continued, “Not that I followed you all the way (I think even you may have gotten lost), [Did I ever!] but I have a feeling that in ‘Mordechai ate the chopped liver,’ ‘Mordechai’ is the subject and ‘ate’ is the predicate — the verb part of a sentence. At least that’s how it was a century or so ago when I was going to school. Back to basics!”

Looks like in school it’s still that way.

Sigh…

As for the second charge, I plead not guilty. Yes, by the letter of the law, the technically correct grammatical form may well be “It was he that Sam bullied.” But the spirit of the law demands going with norma loquendi. (Ask Rabbi Schonbrun.)

As William Safire wrote: “Purists are the only ones who say, ‘It is I,’ although ‘I’ is technically correct as the predicate nominative (a noun or pronoun that follows a linking verb like ‘is’). The stuffy-sounding ‘It is I’ has been replaced by the breezier ‘It’s me,’ and who is to resist breeziness? Not me.”

Not me either.

Even Bryan Garner — my nominee for secretary of language — approved the usage (Garner’s Modern English Usage):

“Generally, of course, the nominative pronoun (here ‘I’) is the complement of a linking verb <this is she> <it was he>. But it is me and it’s me are fully acceptable, especially in informal contexts.”

Garner quoted an anecdote from E.B. White.When White was a cub reporter, “One time a newspaper sent us to a morgue to get a story on a woman whose body was being held for identification. A man believed to be her husband was brought in. Somebody pulled the sheet back; the man took one agonizing look, and cried, ‘My G-d, it’s her!’ When we reported this grim incident, the editor diligently changed it to ‘My G-d, it’s she!’”

Which reminds me of an unverified but popular legend: An editor criticized Winston Churchill’s using a preposition at the end of a sentence. Churchill replied, “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.”