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Which of the following two lines is correct?

  • These are my children who want me to learn cooking.
  • It's my children who want me to learn cooking.

I am not very familiar with the codified rules of grammar, but based on my reading experience, I am pretty sure the second line is correct. But then, I don't know why it is so. Isn't "children" plural?

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Ah! Your 1st example is a perfect example of an integrated relative clause that is not necessarily a "restrictive" relative clause. :) -- By the way, both of your examples are grammatical and fine. Your 2nd example is an it-cleft construction--where the more basic, non-clefted, version is "My children want me to learn cooking". –  F.E. Jun 7 at 1:10
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While they are both grammatical you would use them is very different situations; sentence 1 would only be used when introducing your children to someone. Sentence 2 would be used when talking about your children; not in their presence. –  Jim Jun 7 at 1:12

2 Answers 2

One of the reasons you're unsure of the proper verb is that you've replaced the subject with the pronouns that don't always seem to follow the rules. Both are grammatical.

My children want me to learn to cook.

Want is the 3rd person plural: they want.

In each of your constructions, you're splitting the noun phrase my children into two phrases. You are duplicating my children with two pronouns: These and it. The use of it in this way is called an it-cleft (There is also a wh-cleft).

In the first case, you have represented the subject with a pronoun that is equivalent in number:

These are my children (who want me to learn cooking). (Easier to understand agreement between the pronoun and the verb.)

It is singular, therefore when you emphasize your children with it, you will end up using a singular verb: it is while retaining the proper number in the verb want (they want.) The pronoun here (it) is a dummy pronoun, therefore is not obliged to agree with the noun the it cleft is used to emphasize in number.

It is my children who want me to learn cooking.

vs.

It is my child who wants me to learn cooking.

Also, here is an obvious use of the it-cleft, and the dummy pronoun when emphasizing something which is plural. (Particularly appropriate today.)

Military leadership of the victorious Allied forces in Western Europe during World War II invested Dwight David Eisenhower with an immense popularity, almost amounting to devotion, that twice elected him President of the United States. ...It was the Democrats who gave Eisenhower the votes he required to pass key legislation. - NYT

Richard Norquist explains:

"[A Cleft is] a construction in which some element in a sentence is moved from its normal position into a separate clause to give it greater emphasis... The extra focused element normally appears early in it-clefts and late in wh-clefts."

  • I want a cheeseburger. (normal)
  • It's a cheeseburger I want. (it-cleft: emphasis early)
  • What I want is a cheeseburger. (wh-cleft: emphasis late)
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Perhaps the confusing part is that we are representing the plural noun phrase my children with the singular pronoun it. In most cases in English, pronouns have to agree in number with the nouns they are representing, so this is apparently an exception. Is there a simple reason for this exception? The link you give about it-cleft doesn't seem to discuss this case. –  Nate Eldredge Jun 7 at 2:01
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In other words, you might think you wouldn't be allowed to represent my children with it in the the first place, but would have to use they or these or those or something else. –  Nate Eldredge Jun 7 at 2:04
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@NateEldredge If "they, these, or those" were used as the subject to represent my children, then the subject wouldn't be a dummy pronoun (like the "it" in the it-cleft). A dummy pronoun doesn't have an antecedent, and so, it is not under any constraints such as case (nominative vs accusative) or number (singular vs plural). That's why it is called a dummy pronoun: it has no semantic meaning. –  F.E. Jun 7 at 2:09
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@F.E. - thanks! I kept trying to think of dummy pronoun but could only remember empty pronoun; I will incorporate this into my answer. –  medica Jun 7 at 2:24
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Oh, you also made me look deeper into this (due to "These are my children who want me to learn cooking" as a cleft construction); and I found related info in 2002 CGEL, page 1420, in "9 Clefts", in the section on "Extensions of the main pattern", in "(b) Demonstratives in place of it": and they have the example [23.i] "Those are my biscuits you're eating." –  F.E. Jun 7 at 2:33

I might rephrase as "My children are the ones who want me to learn cooking." Your first choice seems to assume that my children are here, and I'm presenting them to the listener. The second choice is technically wrong in number - although I'm sure I've used similar constructions in informal speech.

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"The second choice is technically wrong in number" -- Er, how so? –  F.E. Jun 7 at 1:17
    
Isn't "children" supposed to agree with "it"? –  Matt Gutting Jun 7 at 1:17
    
Not in an it-cleft construction. The word "It" is a dummy pronoun that is functioning as subject of a main clause. Here's a post that has some info on constructions that use a dummy "it" pronoun: english.stackexchange.com/a/159041/57102 –  F.E. Jun 7 at 1:20
    
Interesting; I've looked up some more information on it-clefts (thanks for that term), but don't see information on their usage when the subject of the "un-cleft" sentence is plural. Though it does sound a bit like my wife, when instead of saying "The movie was good" she says "It was good the movie" (not "It was good, the movie.") –  Matt Gutting Jun 7 at 1:28
    
Please see the answer below, which agrees with and explains @F.E.'s comment. –  medica Jun 7 at 1:34

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