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Compare these 2 sentences:

  1. The capital of Belgium is Brussels.
  2. Brussels is the capital of Belgium.

I have a few questions:

  1. What is the grammatical name of the non-subject, non-verb part in the first sentence?
  2. If you dissect these sentences, you have the structure noun-verb-noun (I think). How can you can you tell which of the 2 nouns is the subject and which is the other grammatical construct?
  3. is the verb "to be" transitive or intransitive in this case?
  • 1
    Have you also considered asking on English Language Learners – Kris May 27 '14 at 11:24
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    @Kris I have considered this. The problem is that the difference between ELL and ELU is not clear to me. A lot of questions on ELU would also fit ELL, I think, like the single word requests. The help also doesn't, well, help, because both websites explicitly mention word choice and usage, grammar, dialect differences and spelling & punctuation in the "What topics can I ask about here?" help page. – Nzall May 27 '14 at 11:53
  • ELU is for advanced questions. Most of the time it could be a matter of opinion. I thought the points raised in this post could have been dealt with at the Learner's level. – Kris May 28 '14 at 4:30
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The capital of Belgium is Brussels.

The subject is the phrase in front of the verb. The entire phrase is a noun phrase. The verb is the present tense, third person singular of be: is. It is intransitive in that it doesn't take a direct object. Here, it is a linking verb; there is no action.

The noun which follows the verb is the subject complement.

Brussels is the capital of Belgium.

The subject here is Brussels. The subject compliment is the noun phrase the capital of Belgium.

  • Can't it be the other way around? instead of subject-verb-complement it could also be complement-verb-subject, given that grammar is flexible. – Nzall May 27 '14 at 9:14
  • To be honest, I am not a grammarian. I do hope one corrects me if I am wrong. I believe the subject is whatever is in front if the verb is. – anongoodnurse May 27 '14 at 9:19
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The linguist R. M. W. Dixon presents another way of understanding this type of sentence in English in the context of language typology. This is from his ‘Basic Linguistic Theory’, Vol. 2 Ch.14: Copula Clauses and Verbless Clauses:

Each language has intransitive and transitive clause types. There is frequently a further minor – but still important – type: copula clause. This has as predicate a copula verb, taking two core arguments, a copula subject (CS) and a copula complement (CC). The predicate in an intransitive or transitive clause has reference. A copula verb as predicate is different in that it has relational rather than referential meaning. [Italics mine.]

He then lists some of the relations that can be expressed with a copula verb in English. They include:

Identity: This man is a doctor.

Attribution: This man is clever.

Possession: This book is John’s.

Location: The apple tree is in the garden.

The nature of the relationship expressed depends on the copula complement – for identity it is a noun (as in your examples), for attribution an adjective, etc.

Your basic question can be reinterpreted in these terms as ‘when are CS and CC in the Identity relation reversible?’ To answer this, Dixon distinguishes three possible types:

  1. Specific referent (shown with a proper name, pronoun etc.)
  2. Specific description (a description specifying a particular person or thing, like ‘the [only] doctor at the hospital’ or ‘my father’)
  3. General description (a description without a unique referent, like ‘a member of the country club’)

Most combinations of CS and CC in these categories can be reversed, sometimes with a shift of meaning. For example, these two sentences are equivalent:

Mary Smith (1) is the owner (2).

The owner (2) is Mary Smith (1).

The Brussels example is of the above type (specific referent (1) + specific description(2)). However, there is one combination – 1 and 3 – that is not reversible. For example, the second sentence here doesn’t work:

Mary Smith (1) is a teacher (3).

*A teacher (3) is Mary Smith (1).

And how do we identify CS and CC in cases where the Identity relation is reversible? Dixon (p. 172):

“The principle is basically pragmatic, relating to what is topic within a section of discourse, what has a known referent, and what is new, and so on.”

This is just one way of looking at things. The copula verb (or just copula) in fact is not so different from what other answers call a linking verb. Other linguists avoid using either term – you could look up other ELU questions with the “copula” tag if you are curious.

  • This is nice. Very clear, well laid out. – Karl Nov 23 '16 at 14:44
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When parsing out a sentence, you normally 'drop out' clauses that complicate the issue to show the essential structure. the word 'of' is an indicator of a phrase that can usually be discarded....so drop out 'of Belgium' whereever you see it.

The capital of Belgium is Brussels. --> The capital is Brussels.

So now you can see the subject, verb, noun structure. Similarly:

Brussels is the capital of Belgium. --> Brussels is the capital.

So you see that this sentence is just flipping the first around the verb 'is'.

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