Can words 69?
by Dirk E. Oldman
Lucky me. I get to fly solo today. No Annie to turn everything back to food. She gets her turn next time.
And today’s subject sounds very promising: the copula. Verbal copulation! That’s what I’ve been talking about from the start. But in this case, “copula” just means directly connecting a quality to a subject, or expressing identity of two things. “This is that.”
The interesting thing is that, when it comes to this kind of copulation, there’s a set of people who prefer a sort of 69 arrangement to the usual pitcher-and-catcher setup that verbs give us.
It’s only a sort of 69. The idea is that a sentence like It’s me should be It is I because the it and the I are one and the same, so both are the subject.
Two subjects! Each pitching and each catching. Or neither catching. So they’re doing each other but neither one is being done. Try that at home.
Actually, what this looks like to me, really, is the object getting a sex change so it can be in a same-sex relationship with the subject. But the difference between that and the It is I construction is that the It is I construction is kinda… you know… unnatural.
Really. You may know that people say it’s supposed to be right, but does it come naturally to you? Would you use it with your friends or pretty much anyone?
Let’s start with the fact that we don’t say It am I. I mean, yes, you can say something like The prince of perverts am I, but that’s obviously an inversion. Verbs are still one-way streets. They can’t get out of the subject-versus-object thing.
Sometimes, it’s true, there is confusion as to who is doing whom. It’s dark, the air is heady… If you have a sentence like Most important are the handcuffs, you don’t have a noun in the subject position, so it’s common to look around and conjugate the verb to the object position. This is like how, if you’re fantasizing that someone’s doing you, you’re still the one doing the doing of being done, even if you’re using a toy (remember: adjectives are sex toys). But you can still say Most important is the handcuffs, because the handcuffs isn’t actually in the subject position. Think of this as using a toy that has batteries in it. (And would you really say Most important am I rather than Most important is me?)
Then there’s What really matters are the handcuffs. Should that be is? The catch here is that what can stand for a singular or a plural. It’s tricky. It’s a pro. So the are is really going with what.
But then you see sentences like The central thing are the handcuffs or The crux of the matter are the handcuffs. This seems to happen because the person writing it has an idea of the central thing or the crux as being like what really matters or most important: a topic-setter but not a noun. Well. Do you like it when someone treats you like a non-person and doesn’t let you do your own doing?
Really, just try that with a person who might speak up about it. The worst thing in the world is nasty ex-wives: a perfectly fine sentence. The worst thing in the world are nasty ex-wives: a little iffy. Two of the three worst things that ever happened to me are Annie’s face: a reasonable sentence. Annie’s face are two of the three worst things that ever happened to me: makes you dizzy.
And there’s another question: to quote a very admirable man, it “depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” Not all ises are even the same. It’s not always a two-way street. Try this:
Nasty ex-wives are very bad things.
Very bad things are nasty ex-wives.
Pornographic authors are happy people.
Happy people are pornographic authors.
The first sentence of each pair is no problem, in the same way as Sex is a form of recreation and Broadway is a street in New York are no problem: If you have a whole bunch of things that are B, and A is one of them, you can say A is B without saying All B are A, which is what the second sentences in the pairs could be read as saying. So this is another way the copula is not a 69.
But back to It is I. This is not the same as Pornographic authors are happy people. There is no set of I that it belongs in. For that matter, there is no set of it that I belongs in. This is because there is no it.
Yup. To quote Billy Joel, “It’s just a fantasy. It’s not the real thing. But sometimes a fantasy is all you need.” When we want to express the presence or identity of something without reference to anything else, we just want a verb and the thing, really. Many other languages do that: they use a plain verb without a subject. “Is me.” Or “Am I.” Or (since equivalents of “have” are often used for this) “Has cheeseburger.” But English doesn’t. We need a subject. But a fantasy subject is good enough. So we use expletives.
No, I don’t ████ing mean words like ████ing. Grammatical expletives are just filler: words that have no reference – they’re just used because something has to be in that spot. It‘s me. There‘s a cheeseburger.
We have them because in English, every verb needs to have a subject, even if the subject is just a fantasy. When we say There are weirdos here, we’re not saying Here are weirdos there and we’re not confused by the contradiction between here and there. There are things to read isn’t the same as Things to read are there. And It is I does not mean It am I or I am it.
So, nope, no 69, not here. Sorry, guys. When you open your eyes, you’ll find it’s just a blow-up doll. You’re flying solo.