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On a rather big (and I guess copy-edited) blog by Chris Brogan, I read this:

Who would it benefit you to know, or what type of person would it benefit you to know to grow your business.

And I cannot fathom it. I do understand the meaning out of context but I am at loss when it comes to analyzing the whole thing. I guess the "normalized" version would be

It benefits me to do something

which is incredibly German-sounding to my ears. If this is the underlying phrasing then I still don't understand the function of "it" in the question.

  • What grammatical function does the "it" have? Is it an object or a subject or a predicate nominative or even an explicative? And also,
  • Shouldn't the question word be "whom"?
  • Would it help to think about the grammatical function of "it" in this sentence? As with your example, it's the existential "it". As it "It would benefit me to know Chris Brogan, in order to grow my business". I think that's General Reference. – FumbleFingers Jan 6 '14 at 19:10
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    It's an extremely awkward question, heavily over-synctactized (Extraposition; Conjunction Reduction; B-Equi; Wh-Question Formation extracted from two clauses down; and more). It's grammatical, but that's about the only thing you can say good about it. – John Lawler Jan 6 '14 at 19:32
  • I think it is a great sentence. :) -- It is fine grammatically, and is often the type of sentence that results after editing. (Maybe the example sentence could end with a question mark.) – F.E. Jan 6 '14 at 19:49
  • 'It's grammatical, but that's about the only thing you can say good about it.' Priceless. It should be a closevote reason. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 6 '14 at 23:08
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    You want to grow your business. What person, or what type of person, could help you with this? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 6 '14 at 23:16
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This sentence could stand as a perfect counterexample to those descriptivists (and they are many, even on this site) who say that whom no longer has a place in English. It is often considered 'too formal', and who is used to replace it indiscriminately. Often, as here, this makes it impossible to tell at first sight whether the pronoun stands for a subject or an object, or even to work out what the intended meaning is. But hey, at least it doesn't sound stuffy, right?

A few other points

  • Yes, it benefits you to do something is a normal phrase. It was becoming archaic, until it was taken up by marketing people. The 'It' is often called a dummy it; see, for example, this.
  • Grow, in this sense of 'expand', is not wrong, but it grates on many ears, including mine.
  • The author has left out a question mark.
  • Inserting 'in order' before 'to grow' would be clearer and avoid the unfortunate echo in know to grow.

  • And any sentence that requires this sort of analysis to make sense of is deeply unkind to the reader, and makes me, at least, suspect the author's communication skills.

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  • I think this sentence stands as a perfect counterexample to those people prone to writing over-complex sentences. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 6 '14 at 23:13
  • I agree with most of what you say, but not about whom. For a small number of people it might help to sort out an unnecessarily complicated structure; but for many it would not help at all. (My evidence is that we quite often get questions here about whether to use whom or not where the interrogative is the subject of the embedded clause, but the embedded clause is itself the object of the matrix clause). – Colin Fine Jan 6 '14 at 23:56
  • I don’t see what difference ‘whom’ would have made here. There is absolutely no possibility of mistaking it for the subject of anything—it’s quite clear that it’s an oblique form in disguise, as it were. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 7 '14 at 0:01
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    The other major problem with your argument is that it assumes that speakers actually use the form of the word ('who' vs 'whom') or indeed grammatical analysis generally as a means of distinguishing subject from object. That's not actually necessarily true. It could be that, given this type of sentence with 'who' vs a version with 'whom', speakers discard who vs whom and use other clues to interpret subject/object status of items in the sentence. – Neil Coffey Jan 7 '14 at 1:29
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    @Neil, “virtually obsolete” are strong words. I frequently use it (in writing; less so in speech), and see it used quite frequently too, even as a direct object. Not nearly as often as ‘who’, of course—enough that I'd label it ‘rare’, but certainly not obsolete. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 7 '14 at 11:38
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It is a dummy subject when it points forward to a to... phrase as in your example.


It benefits me to do something.

This is indeed the intended basic construction, as you say, or the sentence would be meaningless. As to whether it sounds too German, I'll skip that question for now; but I agree that the original sentence is ugly in any case.

It benefits me to know people.

It gives me great pleasure to announce Lady Ashton.

It suits you to arrive early.

It suits you, to arrive early.

It suits you, arriving early.

In all of these examples, the answer to what benefits me?, what gives me great pleasure?, what suits you? is not only it, but also the to... infinitive. You could rephrase it as to know / knowing people benefits me, etc. The reason is that the to... infinitival phrase has a very strong connection to the subject of the main verb.

Some would analyse to... as the true subject. Others would say it is the subject and to... an appositional phrase to it. In other words, the phrase modifies it and expands on it. For comparison, apposition to the subject can also be observed in sentences of this type:

Her mother likes you, the woman in yellow.

In sentences of the type it... to... as in your example, a comma is not normally written. But it is possible, and it even becomes almost mandatory when you replace the infinitive with a gerund, as in it suits you, arriving early. A comma is a sign of apposition here.

The word it is called a dummy subject, because it functions syntactically as the subject, but it is almost without semantic content and merely serves to point forward to the to... phrase.

It should indeed be whom in formal language, since it is the object of know; but who is also often used instead of whom in somewhat less formal language.

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  • So what happens is that we are asking for the direct object of a subordinate infinite clause that in itself is (part of) the subject of the whole sentence and we do that by wrapping the main clause into the subordinate infinitive phrase? This must be one of the weirdest grammatical things I have ever seen. A sublevel element enclosing its own container... English, you are truely crazy – Emanuel Jan 6 '14 at 19:23
  • Could I also say "Him it would benefit me to know."? – Emanuel Jan 6 '14 at 19:24
  • @Emanuel: Yes, more or less. The reason is that interrogative pronouns normally have to be the first word of the sentence: she likes me => whom does she like? This phenomenon is so strong that it even applies to very complex sentences, so that who(m) is moved to the front no matter what. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 6 '14 at 19:25
  • @Emanuel: You could say that. You can start the sentence with him if you want to add focus to/on it. But it is obviously uncommon. It is just like him I saw in the supermarket. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 6 '14 at 19:27
  • This is not really a ‘truly crazy English’ thing as such: an exact parallel can be constructed (and would be far less clumsy to boot) in all the Scandinavian languages, too. I presume German and Dutch would both do it just fine as well, but I’m far too shaky in both to say that with any kind of certainty. Would something along the lines of „Wen würde es mir nutzen zu kennen?“ not be grammatical in German? Or would you need an extra pronoun, „Wen würde es mir nutzen ihn zu kennen“? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 6 '14 at 23:58
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“Who would it benefit you to know, or what type of person would it benefit you to know to grow your business."

*

I'm a AmE speaker, and I find nothing wrong with that sentence. (Except maybe it could use a question mark, but that will probably depend on the context.)

As I said earlier, via a quick comment onto the OP's post, I think the example sentence is fine and is often the type of sentence that results after editing. You'll find sentences like that in printed books and magazines, and in novels, a lot.

There isn't too much going on, imo, as I didn't have much difficulty in parsing it grammatically, nor in figuring out its meaning.

Let's look at it grammatically, well, at least for a few steps. Here's the original:

  • 1.) Who would it benefit you to know, or what type of person would it benefit you to know to grow your business.

The top-level clauses are in the form of interrogative clauses. Let's fiddle with them a bit in order to get similar clauses which have the interrogative words and phrases in situ:

  • 2.) It would benefit you to know [who], or it would benefit you to know [what type of person] to grow your business.

Each of those coordinate clauses are quite normal and unsurprising:

  • It would benefit you to know who?

  • It would benefit you to know what type of person to grow your business?

It is also quite common to often prefer the nominative "who" over the accusative "whom" when that "who/whom" is fronted. Thus,

  • Who would it benefit you to know?

I don't think you'd want a more in depth grammatical analysis of the structure of your example sentence. But if you do, go ahead and ask and I'm sure someone will help you out.

.

EDITED: To answer your question about the function of "it" -- The "it" in each of those clauses is the grammatical subject.

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