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Which is the correct usage of the third person, plural pronoun?

It is they who lied.
It is them who lied.

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4  
    
Nominative case. Has no-one ever asked why it isn't: "It were they"? –  user50805 Aug 29 '13 at 23:54
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4 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The subordinate clause "who lied" is a red herring in this example. By that, I mean that "who lied" has no effect on the case of the main clause.

In "who lied", who is getting nominative case. That is why, if you make a who/whom distinction, you would say:

  • It is John who lied. (nominative)
  • It is John whom I lied to. (accusative)

So, who is bearing the burden of the case of the subordinate clause, which means your question is actually:

"Which is correct: 'It is they' or 'It is them'?"

or, even more to the point:

"Does English use nominative case on both sides of the copula?"

For this, the answer is not completely straightforward. But here is my (hopefully objective) take:

  1. Usage indicates that a clear majority of people prefer to use the accusative case ("it is them"), and there is other evidence to indicate that the accusative is the default case in English. If you look at speech, you will find that the preference is even clearer; in writing, the preference is not as strong but still quite clearly in favor of "it is them".

  2. There is also clear evidence that a large-enough minority prefers "it is they" that both are legitimate uses. Certainly, both constructions are linguistically sound variants, even if the accusative is the default case. (The default case thing is more of an explanation for why accusative in the copula should ever happen.)

  3. There are some who believe that "it is they" is the objectively correct answer. In an approach similar to this answer about "data is" vs. "data are", I would suggest that it is important to be aware of your audience and your group. Whether a construction's usage is in the minority or not, certain audiences in certain contexts expect certain language. This means that you might be judged for not using "it is they" in these groups. It's not really a matter of objective correctness, but rather, group membership. Just as choosing semantically correct words and pronouncing them correctly are important in your communication, the register and language you choose to use within a group is also important. (You may choose to intentionally label yourself as an outsider, but the important thing is to be aware that you can make that choice with the words you use!)

So, the short answer is: both versions exist, so do what feels natural to you, but consider your audience expectations.

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It's they.

Who lied? They did. → It is they who lied.

Edit: them continues to sound Just WrongTM to me, but knowledgeable folks who I respect tell me that it is also acceptable, maybe even preferred in some contexts (e.g. spoken language). So I'm officially confused.

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And if y'all want your brain fried, see the chat about this subject. –  Marthaª Mar 23 '11 at 22:21
    
"His eye so dim, So wasted each limb, That, heedless of grammar, they all cried, "THAT'S HIM!" (The Jackdaw of Rheims, Barham). So people do knowingly misuse this one.. –  TimLymington May 10 '11 at 19:50
    
Why not, "Who lied? Them."? –  Andrew Cheong Apr 10 '13 at 5:21
    
@acheong87 Equally why not say: A: "Who lied?" B: "They did." (And this is the form I prefer) –  Mari-Lou A Feb 1 at 19:44
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With regards to the query above, whether "It is they who lied." or "It is them who lied.", I stand to the former. My explanation on this matter is a sort of grammatical, but I shall explore it with more of a logical character.

As such, should we analyse the construction of each sentence, we will then be required to divide each with their respective components, that is with this formula: SUBJ + COPULA + PREDICATE.

Hence in each case, they shall be conceived as:

It is they who lied = (It is they who) + (were) + (lying)*

([It]+[is]+[them who]) + (were) + (lying)**

*Remember that the "they" is a subject pronoun whereas "them" is an object pronoun. As much as "who" is also a subject pronoun. Thence, we should view the 'they' (as well as 'who') as elements belonging to the SUBJ, not as part of the PREDICATE. For this reason I had restructured the sentence to fit on the formula.

**From this analysis of the latter sentence, it appears that there are 2 sets of constructions within a single construction. This is logically invalid should we follow the strict formula mentioned above. Therefore, even the "It is them who were lying" is a sweet-smelling nectar under our very rhetorical noses, its very construction is no less than invalid.

Thus, to follow the logical formula, I assert that what is correct between the two is the "IT IS THEY WHO LIED."

***I hope this helps. n_n

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Actually, the sentence has the form of an "it-cleft". The parsing is: [It is they/them] + [who lied]. The main clause is "It is they/them". The cleft relative clause is "who lied". There is no copula clause involved, for the main clause uses a dummy pronoun "It" as subject. (Roughly, the non-cleft version is sorta "They/Them lied".) –  F.E. Dec 12 '13 at 3:18
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I think that if the pronoun after 'It is' serves as the subject of a subordinate clause containing a relative pronoun then it is in the nominative case. For example: It is he who killed the deer. But: Who is it? It is him.

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You are absolutely right. What's with the downvote? –  Peter Shor Jan 15 '12 at 19:15
    
Except that the subject of the subordinate clause is "who", not "he". –  RegDwigнt Mar 30 '12 at 8:12
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