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This sentence took me a lot of time to parse:

For migrant birds, which habitats are suitable during the non-breeding season influences habitat availability, population resilience to habitat loss, and ultimately survival.

(from Blackburn, E. and Cresswell, W. (2015), “Fine-scale habitat use during the non-breeding season suggests that winter habitat does not limit breeding populations of a declining long-distance Palearctic migrant”. Journal of Avian Biology, 46: 622–633. doi: 10.1111/jav.00738)

Finally I figured out that the predicate is influences and the subject is hidden somewhere behind the "which. But is this correct English? What is the subject of this sentence then?

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    That's an awful sentence. I think influences is the main verb, with three objects, and the subject is "which habitats are suitable". That is, "the choice of suitable habitats" or something similar. – Andrew Leach Feb 25 '16 at 12:21
  • @AndrewLeach and the habitat suitability influences the 3 things (availability, resilience and survival), or is influenced by those? I guess the former is the case... – Tomas Feb 25 '16 at 12:36
  • @AndrewLeach Can an adjective clause be also the subject of the main clause? I mean, that's what the author probably meant, but it is more than awful—it's completely agrammatical, right? – Yay Feb 25 '16 at 13:28
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    @Yay - It's not an adjective clause, even though its juxtaposition to "birds" in what looks deceptively like a parenthetical structure makes it seem like one for a confusing moment. The subject of the sentence is a noun clause led by the relative pronoun. Andrew Leach is right on the money: it's a wretched sentence. It's grammatically consistent, though. – Rob_Ster Feb 25 '16 at 13:58
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    @Araucaria - Could "technical biology writing" be a composition flaw in itself? I sometimes feel that Natural Selection in the STEM part of the jungle favors editors with science savvy over those little bug-eyed English Lanuage Lemurs with their prehensile pronouns and well-subordinated claws. ;-) – Rob_Ster Feb 25 '16 at 15:43
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For migrant birds, which habitats are suitable during the non-breeding season influences habitat availability, population resilience to habitat loss, and ultimately survival.

This is a sentence from a piece of technical academic writing from the Journal of Avian Biology.

The sentence is perfectly grammatical and also makes sense. The structure of the sentence is as follows:

  • Adjunct: For migrant birds

  • Subject: which habitats are suitable during the non-breeding season

  • Predicator: influences
  • Object: habitat availability, population resilience to habitat loss, and survival.

The Subject is an interrogative content clause. The Object is a coordination of three noun phrases. It has a parenthetical adjunct embedded in it, the word ultimately.

The phrase for birds is technically an Adjunct just because it isn't a Subject or a Complement of the verb. In terms of information packaging, it has been fronted so that it serves as the topic of the rest of the sentence.


Grammar note:

Some grammars call Adjuncts Adverbials.

Predicator is that job done by the matrix verb in the clause.

  • I agree that, despite some previous comments, this is a completely straightforward sentence. It's a little technical. I also agree that "for migrant birds" is a major sentence part, along with subject and predicate. But I don't think "adjunct" is a very meaningful term for it. How about "topic", so we could compare with, e.g., Japanese wa phrases? – Greg Lee Feb 25 '16 at 14:48
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    @GregLee Have had a little edit. How's that? – Araucaria Feb 25 '16 at 15:08
  • Not good. A topic is not an adverb, any more than a subject is. – Greg Lee Feb 25 '16 at 15:16
  • @GregLee Oh, you meant Topic as a fully blown grammatical relations label? (An Adjunct isn't an adverb either, of course). I'm not overly familiar with the term topic used as a grammatical relations label (because of my very limited reading around other languages). – Araucaria Feb 25 '16 at 15:20
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    No, unlike a left-dislocated element, a Topic needn't have a role within the predicate. This is what I know about topics (it isn't much): (1) They're important in Japanese. (2) Jeanette Gundel wrote a dissertation about them. (3) They are implied by a extended version of Relational Grammar I have worked on (3=indirect object, 2=direct object, 1=subject, 0=topic). – Greg Lee Feb 25 '16 at 15:41

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