How do you you parse this sentence?

Here's my attempt:

subj: It

verb: seemed

comp: to be a man (infinitive)

is the whole infinitive phrase the complement or is "a man" the complement, and "to be" an expletive?

  • Good question. The usual consensus is that (assuming It refers to a real thing, and is not a dummy it) seem is an intransitive flip perception verb that optionally takes an experiencer in a to-phrase (seems to me/him/everybody) and takes a subject complement clause, which must either undergo Extraposition (with that-complements) or Subject-Raising (with infinitive complements). E.g, *For him to be tired seems Raises to He seems to be tired, but *That he is tired seems Extraposes to It seems that he is tired. Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 16:55
  • @John Lawler He probably wants an answer that his teacher 'understands', not a/the proper one. Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 17:00
  • 1
    Well, the infinitive is the complement, or what's left of it (minus the raised It subject), and the whole infinitive phrase is the complement, right enough. At least close enough. Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 23:01

3 Answers 3


'It' is not always a real subject but a grammatical construct so that a sentence which does not need a subject has one, as in "It is raining." This usage is sometimes called 'dummy subject'.

Your sentence actually does not have a subject but English grammar requires a subject. So 'it' is used in lieu of a subject. (In other languages it is common to omit the subject and have the verb conjugation hint which omitted pronoun would be the subject.)


I finally figured this out. "Seem to" is a phrasal modal and not the main/lexical verb.

sbj: it
vrb: seemed to - be
        cmp: person
                det: a

That's all it is. This actually simplifies it.


Particularly, in the copular/linking verbs as "appear" & "seem" we often use 'TO BE' for showing a relationship or describing a state. It is better to regard "seem to be" as verb phrase. "A man" is the complement.

Otherwise, "seem" may take a clause/ phrase as its complement.

° It seems that it would rain today.

°°I seem to have left my book at home.

In the last sentence "to have" is not the part of the verb phrase but part of an elliptical clause--"to have left my book at home".

  • So you claim the structure of "It seemed to be a man." is different from "It seemed to run quickly." ?
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 20:35
  • @ Ben Voigt exactly. In the 1st. 'Man' is the complement and in the 2nd.'to run quickly' meaning a crammed version of "that it would run quickly"--- both functioning as complement. Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 4:30

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