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What is a Predicate?

Ross at Play

Predicates are the things which tend to cause most problems when deciding the correct case for pronouns, e.g. I or me, he or him, who or whom.

This is the definition of 'predicate' in the Ox. Dict.

(grammar) a part of a sentence containing a verb that makes a statement about the subject of the verb, such as 'went home' in 'John went home'.

CMOS doesn't have a definite of 'predicates', only of 'predicate adjectives' at 5.81 which I've quoted below.
Note the other thing that can be a predicate is a noun/pronoun. That's what I'm mostly interested in here, because it is personal pronouns (and who, whom, …) which cause so many grammar problems for whether they should be in the nominative (aka subjective) case or the objective case.
This is CMOS 5.81, its definition of 'Predicate Adjective'

A predicate adjective is an adjective that follows a linking verb (see 5.99) but modifies the subject [the child is afraid, the night became colder, this tastes delicious, I feel bad].
If an adjective in the predicate modifies a noun or pronoun in the predicate, it is not a predicate adjective. For example, in 'the train will be late' the adjective 'late' modifies the subject 'train'. But in 'the train will be here at a late hour' the adjective 'late' modifies the noun 'hour', not the subject 'train'. So even though it occurs in the predicate, it is not known as a predicate adjective, which by definition follows a linking verb.

I hear more moaning, "WTF is a linking verb?"
It's also known as a 'copula verb' or 'connecting verb'.
More moans. Okay, if you insist, here's its definition of a 'linking verb' at 5.99.

A linking verb (also called a copula or connecting verb) is one that links the subject to an equivalent word in the sentence — a predicate pronoun, predicate noun, or predicate adjective.
The linking verb itself does not take an object.
There are two kinds of linking verbs:
- be-verbs
- intransitive verbs that are used in a weakened sense, such as seem, smell, appear, feel, and look. When used as a link, the weakened intransitive verb often has a figurative sense akin to that of 'became', as in 'he fell heir to a large fortune (note: he didn't physically fall on or into anything) or the river ran dry (Note: a waterless river doesn't run, it just dries up). See5.167.

So, just when you've gotten used to the idea a sentence has a subject and a verb and usually some object(s), I come along and say, "That's not quite so." If the verb is the be-verb, or a linking verb, then it usually has a predicate, not an object, whenever it's providing some description of or identifies the subject of the sentence.
The predicate may be an adjective (phrase) or a 'substantive' (which means any noun, pronoun, or phrase serving the function of a noun). It cannot be an adverb, because that would be modifying the verb. For example, 'badly' is an adverb modifying 'feel' in the sentence 'I feel badly', but 'bad' is a predicate providing a description of the subject 'I' in the sentence 'I feel bad'.

I'll add one more comment before leaving you in peace, or should that be 'in pieces'? The lists of linking verbs I've seen seem quite familiar. They might, I can't be sure, be the same as the 'filter words' we discussed recently in this thread:

Replies:   samuelmichaels

@Ross at Play

Thank you. This gives terminology for some intuition about sentences without a clear subject.


The predicate, basically, is everything in a sentence that isn't part of the subject. It comprises the main verb and objects and any words or phrases that modify them. Every sentence has a predicate. If it doesn't, it isn't a sentence; it's a fragment.

Normally, pronouns in the subject (if they're not possessives) take the nominative case (I, she, who), while pronouns in the predicate (if they're not possessives) take the objective case (me, her, whom).

The exception, the "predicate nominative", occurs when the verb - usually a form of "to be" - doesn't describe something the subject is doing to the object, but rather draws an equivalence between subject and object. Then the object takes the nominative.

So, for example:
"Who is she?"

Both "she" and "who" are in the nominative here. It's kind of hard to tell which is the subject. You could flip the sentence around to, "She is who?" and it would mean pretty much the same thing. "Who" isn't doing something to "she", or vice versa; they're the same thing. So the predicate nominative is used.

Using the objective, "Who is her?" should sound obviously wrong.

"Who eats her?"

Now, this sentence has a clear subject and object. "Who" is the subject, the one doing the eating. The predicate is "eats her"; the main verb "eats" and the direct object "her". The verb isn't drawing an equivalence between subject and object; it's describing something the subject is doing to the object. So the predicate nominative isn't used; "her" is the objective case.

If you flip the sentence around so that the subject is the object, and vice versa, it takes on a totally different meaning:

"She eats whom?"

Now "she" is the subject, the one doing the eating. "Whom" is the object, the one being eaten.

In moving from the predicate to the subject, "she/her" has flipped from the objective to the nominative, and in moving from subject to predicate, "who/whom" has flipped from nominative to objective. And, as you wouldn't use the predicate nominative in the original form of the sentence ("her", not "she"), you shouldn't use it in this form either, so it's the objective "whom", not the nominative "who".

Of course, "whom" as a distinct objective case is almost vestigial, rapidly going the way of the objective cases of English's nouns and adjectives, and while the predicate nominative is generally used in simple cases even by people who have no idea what a "predicate" or a "nominative" is, it's often not observed in more complicated sentences.

The predicate adjective is a different concept, unrelated to the question of what case pronouns like "who(m)" should take. A predicate adjective is an adjective found in the predicate of a sentence, but which modifies the subject, not a noun or pronoun in the predicate.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play


Thank you.
I think you managed to explain that better than I did.
I learned something new: swapping the two nouns, or equivalents, will often tell you which form is correct.
Whether we should use what is correct is another question entirely.

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