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I was reading 3rd short story in Agatha Christie's "Poirot Investigates" when I stumbled on following sentence:

"That's them," I declared in an ungrammatical whisper.

What is so ungrammatical about that's them? What would be considered grammatically correct instead?

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Grammatically, it should've been that's they, instead? What do you think? –  Kris Apr 1 '13 at 4:30
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A. them 2. Informal. (used instead of the pronoun they in the predicate after the verb to be ): It's them, across the street. It isn't them. dictionary.reference.com/browse/them B. "Fowler says: me is technically wrong in It wasn't me etc.; but the phrase being of its very nature colloquial, such a lapse is of no importance". alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxitsmev.html –  Kris Apr 1 '13 at 4:40
    
Pullum goes further: Myth: Expressions like "It was me" and "She was taller than him" are incorrect; the correct forms are "It was I" and "She was taller than he." Pullum responds: The forms with nominative pronouns sound ridiculously stuffy today. In present-day English, the copular verb takes accusative pronoun complements and so does "than." My advice would be this: If someone knocks at your door, and you say "Who's there?" and what you hear in response is "It is I," don't let them in. It's no one you want to know. ( universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/4225 ) –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 1 '13 at 18:17

1 Answer 1

up vote 2 down vote accepted

"That's" = "That is". To preserve number, you could say instead "Those are (those're) them". You might only do this in a formal context (in which case you would also not use the contraction).

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And this is precisely why grammar is trivial: idiomatic English always trumps grammatical English. If such a declarative is necessary in formal written English -- novels aren't in that category, thank goodness -- then it's necessary to recast the sentence as something like "Those are the killers". But in dialog, whatever people say is what is written, and the reading's all the better for that. "I declared in an ungrammatical whisper" is merely Christie's successful attempt to say "I said" in an unusual and more interesting way than "I whispered". –  user21497 Apr 1 '13 at 5:44
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@BillFranke: Slight correction -- grammar isn't trivial; it's bullshit grammar that's trivial. It is simply an insane idea that the correct version should be some monstrosity like Those are they instead of the perfectly grammatical and normal That's them. There is way too much nonsense circulating about English grammar. –  John Lawler Apr 1 '13 at 14:43
    
@JohnLawler: Yes, you're right. I agree that my statement is over the top hyperbolic & insufficiently qualified. It misrepresents the value of studying grammar (which I've always loved but now find useful only for parsing sentences & deciding how to arrange them; I no longer teach grammar or much beyond writing). It's also insulting (unintentional but carelessly unconsidered before I uttered it) to professional linguists, for which I apologize to all the linguists here. I'll be more circumspect in future about casting such a wide net & being thoughtlessly critical & condescending. –  user21497 Apr 1 '13 at 15:07
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No offense; what irks me is that so many people think of grammar as this system for putting other people down instead of as the fascinating web of phenomena that it is. All the social static about "correctness" makes people deaf to what's actually going on. Oh, well, humans will be human, I guess. –  John Lawler Apr 1 '13 at 15:15
    
-1 Unless we know the context, there's no way to tell the that even refers to them. "That's not me (I)" is perfectly grammatical as far as the that is concerned. How can we say we need those, unless we know it referes to them? It could be like the existential it, even. –  Kris Apr 2 '13 at 5:36

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