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When it comes to the copula sentence, usually the noun phrase preceding the copula is subject.

(1)The problem is the kids. 
(2)??The problem are the kids. 

(3)The kids are the problem. 
(4)*The kids is the problem.

My question is what the differences are between (1) and (3)? Do they mean the same? What is the inner reason for such minor differences? And for equational sentences, (a subset of copular sentences), how could we draw the trees building on the framework of phrase structure grammar?

As Tim has pointed out,

"The aspect of the question that makes it appropriate for this forum is the fact that to answer it well, one should consider how such sentences are produced in other languages. In German, for instance, sentence (2) would have agreement with the post-copular NP, i.e. Das Problem sind /*ist die Kinder. Furthermore, the basic issue concerns the distinction between specificational and predicational copular sentences, areas that are of relevance to theoretical syntax. "

Thanks, @Tim for helping me clarify the questions.

Update: here is an interesting video considering this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjEi7T8hYmY

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    @jlawler. Copular sentences occur in many languages. The question is quite valid here. May 7, 2023 at 9:03
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    @Janus. The aspect of the question that makes it appropriate for this forum is the fact that to answer it well, one should consider how such sentences are produced in other languages. In German, for instance, sentence (2) would have agreement with the post-copular NP, i.e. Das Problem sind /*ist die Kinder. Furthermore, the basic issue concerns the distinction between specificational and predicational copular sentences, areas that are of relevance to theoretical syntax. May 7, 2023 at 12:14
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    I suggest that the question be expanded somewhat to mention the distinction, i.e. specificational vs. predicational copular sentences. That should give it enough linguistic weight to justify its presence in this forum. May 7, 2023 at 12:22
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    I'd say (2) is very bad and (4) is marginal. May 7, 2023 at 12:32
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    @Tim That’s precisely the reason I would call it an English question more than a linguistics question: it is specifically asking about the restraints on the English sentences, not how those restraints compare to other languages, and as asked, it is not necessary to consider other languages at all to answer it well. If the question were broadened to deal with more than just the English structures specifically, I would agree with keeping it here. (Of course, the generic question about how to draw trees should also be removed.) May 7, 2023 at 13:44

1 Answer 1

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Because phrase structure grammars are about syntax - patterns by which words get put together, without concern for what the resulting sentence means - the copula is just reflected like other verbs:

Sentence -> NP + Copula + AdjP
Sentence -> NP + Copula + NP
Sentence -> NP + Copula + PP

There is some disagreement in different kinds of phrase structure grammar. Some people treat the copula taking an NP for an object as a different type of copula, a “linking” verb, for “equational” sentences.

In some later versions of phrase structure grammars, a “movement” rule was created, where something can move to the front of the sentence, and it gets labeled with “Spec” (“specifier”), to indicate “topicalization”. For equational sentences, this seems kind of like the analogy to the “passive” voice of verbs. “The problem is Tim” could actually have Tim as the subject, “problem” as the predicate, but they’ve been inverted in a context where “the problem” is topicalized - it is in the foreground of interest, so “the problem” gets specified as Tim.

Arguably, there could be many kinds of copula, from a semantic perspective. You could express that A is identical to B (equative), A has the property B (predicative), A has the state B (predicative), A is a subtype of category B (also predicative), but all that are semantic relationships - the syntax of the verb remains trivial. It’s just a verb, which can take certain predicates.

Many languages express these different possible variations of the copula with differentiated words - hen vs. shi, ser vs. estar, and so on.

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  • Thanks very much for the detailed illustrations! The classification of differerent kinds of copula is quite interesting! :)
    – Yili Xia
    May 15, 2023 at 13:46
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    Some languages have different kinds of copula from a syntactic perspective as well. There’s Chinese, which you mention, where 很 hěn is an adverb but 是 shì is a verb. Or Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish, Manx), where predication (property/state) is formed with a regular verb and the normal VSO word order (V + Subj[NP] + Pred[AdjP/PP]); while definition (≈subtype) and equation use a copular particle and a unique word order (definition: C + Pred[NP] + Subj[Pro] + (Subj[NP]), identification: C + Subj[Pro] + (Subj[NP]) + Pred[NP] + (Subj[Pro])). May 15, 2023 at 13:49
  • @JanusBahsJacquet You could post the detail answer too if you'd like. :) Thanks very much for adding it to this question!
    – Yili Xia
    May 15, 2023 at 14:02
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    Unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with phrase structure grammar to be able to confidently say what the presence of multiple, different copular structures within a single language like that means for their interpretation, or how it might affect syntax trees. May 15, 2023 at 14:04

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