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Bit of context: In a documentary a guy finds two bears he raised the year before; at the beginning he doesn't recognize them but eventually he shouts, "It has to be them!"

To my Spanish ears the correct sentence would have been "They have to be them" and Google Translate kind of backs me but still find contradictory answers to this.

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  • possible duplicate of Which is correct: "This is her" or "This is she"? Jan 16, 2015 at 16:06
  • It's idiomatic English to use it instead of they here. The it refers to the collection of bears (the pair). The sentence is confirming the equivalence of observed group of bears with the specific group of bears. But because the usage is idiomatic you can't fully justify it using core grammar rules. Different languages will use different approaches to say this. For example, in Polish, you'd say "to oni" where "to" means "it" and "oni" means "them". Jan 17, 2015 at 1:00
  • No, it does not refer to the collection of the bears: it doesn't refer at all. In this construction, it is a dummy subject, a bit like il in French il y a.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 17, 2015 at 2:06
  • @Sinatra : "it had to be you"
    – Alex Brown
    Jan 17, 2015 at 4:05

5 Answers 5

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If we see two things, we might refer to what we are looking on as a single scene (of two things) or as two things.

"The thing I am seeing has to be the two bears I raised." → "It has to be them."

"The two bears I am seeing have to be the two bears I raised." → "They have to be them."

Both are therefore fine.

There is also a very common placeholder use of it used "with reference to an abstract thing, or a matter expressed or implied in a statement, or occupying the attention of the speaker."

And here it can be used with anything that we later give more information about, whether that thing "contains" a plurality or not.

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  • Such a comprehensive answer I can't be bothered looking for duplicates. Jan 16, 2015 at 16:07
  • Cf: It has to be them/him/her/me/those bastards/the government/Obama/demons/... that caused it. Jan 16, 2015 at 17:01
  • Typical exchange when hearing a knock on the door, in English: "Who is it?" "It's me." In Spanish: "¿Quién es?" "Soy yo." (Literally: "Who is it?" "I am me.") Jan 16, 2015 at 21:57
  • It can be confusing...
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 16, 2015 at 23:00
  • @JonHanna - You mean they can be confusing.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 17, 2015 at 0:57
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"It has to be them" is current usage. "They have to be them", on the other hand, sounds awkward.

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  • 1
    @Jon Hanna 'Thy have to be them' sounds tautological. hence the placeholder 'it' seems to overcome that problem.
    – WS2
    Jan 16, 2015 at 19:28
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"It has to be them," "It must be them," "They have to be them," are all correct to my ears. I think there is a slight discord with "They have to be them" because of the underlying idea: they are them. "They are them" is quite unidiomatic, whereas the extension you suggest is diluted and so (somewhat) tolerable.

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"They have to be them" would be the logical answer, but it is a little like saying "I am me" which can only be true, and slightly mad...

Imagine instead the French: "Il faut que c'est eux!"

The "Il faut" means "it must be the case", so the sentence really means "It must be the case that it is them!" However, this is a mouthful, so it gets trimmed.

"It has to be them!"

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In British English, "It's got to be them!" is about the most idiomatic way I can think of to express this idea.

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