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An answer to an ELL question linked to a Wikipedia article "Inverse copular constructions".

The article presents an analysis that was new to me of sentences such as "The plumber is Fred", "A picture on the wall is the cause of the riot", "The cause of the revolt are/is the photos".

The article presents "A picture on the wall is the cause of the riot" as an "inverse copular construction". But confusingly, further down it gives "The cause of the revolt are/is the photos" as an example of a sentence with an inverted subject.

Are Wikipedia's description and examples correct? I feel like one of these examples must be backwards, but even if that's fixed, I'm still confused because the article doesn't explain how we can determine that the apparent subject (the noun phrase that comes first and that the copula agrees with, when those are the same thing) is not the actual subject. (I would have naively supposed that the syntactic subject of "The cause of the riot is a picture on the wall" is "The cause of the riot", and the syntactic subject of "A picture on the wall is the cause of the riot" is "A picture on the wall.")

The article says that the English pattern of verb agreement is impossible in German and Italian, giving as an example "La causa della rivolta sono/*è queste foto." Setting aside the question of whether that proves anything about the grammar of the English equivalent, I'm also wondering if this is accurate: I did a search online and found the following sentence here:

  • "Però secondo me, probabilmente la causa è le fognature che si sono occluse" (Angelo09, 14 Gennaio, 2021)

  • My gloss: But according_to me, probably the-F.SG cause-F.SG is the-F.PL sewer-F.PL that 3.REFL are occlude-PST.PTCP.F.PL

  • My translation, aided by Google Translate: "But in my opinion, probably the cause is the sewers that have become blocked"

If "la causa" is not the subject here, then according to what was said above the following verb should not agree with it, but it does: we see singular "è" here and not plural "sono" which would be required if the subject of the clause were the following noun phrase "le fognature" (which triggers the expected plural agreement in the relative clause "che si sono occluse"). And if "la causa" is the subject here, I don't see why it couldn't be used as the subject in a sentence like "*La causa della rivolta è queste foto."

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  • Note that there are 2 pairs of sentences about the cause of the revolt in the Wiki article, one pair has a picture, the other one the photos, and your confusion arose from you trying to corelate sentences from different pairs, but forgetting that the ‘canonical’ sentences in both pairs just mirror each other. Well, it was really not the best idea to use those mirror sentences in an article about inversion, there's nothing else left for you to do now but to reconcile with mirrored inversions. :-)
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Mar 19 at 14:27
  • @YellowSky: Yes, they occur in different pairs. The article clearly supposes however that there is some way other than word order to tell which of the noun phrases is the subject, so I'm confused why "the cause of" seems to be described as the subject in one set of sentences, but as the predicate in the other pair: don't you agree it seems inconsistent? Commented Mar 19 at 23:38
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Linguistics Meta, or in Linguistics Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 27 at 21:25

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The Wikipedia article is inconsistent and incorrect in part concerning the issue flagged in the question. The correct analysis of the “riot/revolt” sentences is as follows (but altered a bit to allow for better illustration):

(1a) A picture of the wall was the cause of the riot. – Normal variant

(1b) The cause of the riot was a picture of the wall. – Inverted variant

The key trait of these sentences that reveals (1b) to be the inverted variant is the presence of the abstract noun cause. This noun is predicative in both variants of the sentence, for both variants are truth-conditionally equivalent to the sentence A picture of the wall caused the riot, helping to reveal that cause is indeed predicative.

The primary means Moro (1997) uses to identify the inverted variant in this case is wh-extraction. Only the normal (uninverted) variant allows extraction of the complement of the post-copular noun:

(2a) Which riot was a picture of the wall the cause of?

(2b) *Which wall was the cause of the riot a picture of?

The acceptability judgments here are those of Moro, and I mostly agree, although the contrast may not be so black-and-white for many. Most of the Wikipedia article was written back in 2012, and the mistake I made at the time was to construe the definite/indefinite article to be decisive. I erroneously assumed that the more definite nominal would be the initial nominal in the normal, uninverted variant. I will be correcting the Wikipedia article soon in this regard.

Concerning what should count as the subject of such copular sentences in English, the answer is not straightforward. Many grammarians who have worked on copular inversion would likely agree with the OP, namely that the initial NP should always be construed as the subject. The problem with doing this, though, is that the initial NP in the inverted variants does not behave like a subject in many ways. It behaves, rather, like a predicative nominal instead. There are numerous diagnostics that are relevant in this area, but I will produce just one here, one concerning coordination. Examine the next sentences:

(3a) Fred is [our plumber] and [our electrician].

(3b) *Our plumber is [Fred] and [Jack].

The name Fred is indisputably the subject in (3a) and our plumber and our electrician is predicative; coordination is possible precisely because the conjuncts are predicative. In contrast, coordination is impossible in (3b) because the conjuncts there are not predicative, but rather Fred and Jack is the one argument. These facts make sense if one acknowledges that Our plumber is in fact predicative in (3b). But if Our plumber is indeed predicative in (3b), then that must mean that Fred and Jack is the subject argument. In this regard, the Wikipedia article is not incorrect.

Concerning agreement in Italian, the Wikipedia article is likely correct. For instance, Moro (1997: 28) produces sentence (4), and sentence (5) from German is similar:

enter image description here

Thus, Italian and German speakers would not hesitate about such cases: the post-copular nominal group would be deemed the subject because it agrees with the finite verb.

Finally, the Italian example linked to in the question does not strike me as problematic for the analysis in the Wikipedia article, although since that example is not clearly glossed, I am unsure about what the difficulty or controversy there is supposed to be.

I will be correcting and revising the Wikipedia article soon in line with the points made here above.

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  • Thank you, this helps resolve my confusion! I don't know Italian but I interpreted the sentence using online resources. I added a gloss to the question. My question in that regard is why I found "la causa è le fognature che si sono occluse" when based on what Moro reportedly says, I would expect only "la causa sono le fognature che si sono occluse" to be possible. Commented Mar 29 at 2:04
  • I don’t really understand the coordination test here. The only reason that 3a works and 3b doesn’t is that people are known to be able to carry out multiple roles, whereas the singular role ‘plumber’ cannot normally be fulfilled by multiple people at once. But in the right context, if this normal situation is explicitly set aside, 3b can work just fine: “Who’s that under your kitchen sink?” — “That’s Jack.” — “But I thought Jack was your plumber?” — “Nah, we don’t put all our eggs in one basket: our plumber is Jack and Fred.” Commented Mar 29 at 13:54
  • @brass tacks. Try putting in the sentence The cause of our problem is the sewers that have become clogged into Google and translating it to Italian. You will get the sentence La causa del nostro problema *sono* le fogne che si sono intasate back out. In general, though, I think to be sure about the matter, it would be necessary to consult with a native speaker of Italian. For my part, I know that it is widely maintained in the literature in the area that most European languages other than English and French prefer agreement with the post-copular nominal group in such cases. Commented Mar 29 at 14:17
  • @Janus Bahs Jacquet. I disagree with your counterexample. That sentence is forced and unnatural. One would, rather, say "...Nah, we don't put all our eggs in one basket: we have two plumbers, Jack and Fred". In any case, there are many more tests revealing that NP1 in such inverted copular sentences is predicative and hence not the subject argument. Consider, for instance, what the next sentence reveals in this regard: The tallest player on our team is Molly, isn't it? How is it possible, that the inanimate pronoun it can refer back to the animate nominal group The tallest player? Commented Mar 29 at 14:32
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    @Janus Bahs Jacquet. The "tallest player" example is closely similar to a sentence from Mikkelsen's (2005: 72) dissertation on copular sentences, i.e. The tallest girl in class is Molly, isn't it?, which Mikkelsen and others in the literature judge to be good. I have tested such sentences extensively in Mechanical Turk. Informants judge them to be only somewhat degraded. Compare that sentence, for instance, to the uninverted variant: *Molly is the tallest girl in class, isn't it? -- the informants in Mechanical Turk clearly reject such sentences. Commented Mar 30 at 0:43

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