What is the grammar behind the construction "I think it strange/necessary that ...", and when can and cannot this apparent omission of the copula be used? Do we always need the "that" clause?

Also, this seems to be only allowed when the object is a pronoun (it in the above example). That is, we don't say "I think this method strange", correct?

  • This is called ellipsis. See my answer to a different question. – Robusto Sep 6 '11 at 0:29
  • Actually, the last thing you said isn't correct: I think this method strange would be used as much as I think it strange, when applicable, of course. – Daniel Sep 6 '11 at 2:18
  • I think this method strange is a little funky to me, albeit still acceptable. It's probably because I expect the simple transitive there, but in general I agree that this isn't limited to pronouns. For example, I find this method strange works fine for me. – tdhsmith Sep 6 '11 at 3:02

You might call it ellipsis, but I don't think this is the simplest analysis possible. I'd rather put to think in the category of verbs that can have an object complement, like find, consider, call, etc. The words it and strange are a red herring, non-essential.

Did she think his manners uncouth?

Do you find the house depressing?

I consider him a fool.

She called me silly.

These are all verbs that mean something like "assign label X to thing Y", but there are different verbs in this category too:

She painted the house black.

He wanted me dead.

They made me King.

I hereby pronounce you husband and wife.

In I think it strange that..., the pronoun it is used as a dummy object to refer forward to the that clause. Compare this to I don't like it that you have seduced my daughter, but so be it.

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  • Bam. Precise what I'd've said. The situation is especially confusing since it involves two odd phenomena that aren't usually taught, even to native English speakers: complex transitives/small clauses and dummy/existential pronouns. – tdhsmith Sep 6 '11 at 2:59
  • I'm not sure about this. Seems to be that the "is" is just ommitted per Robusto's idea of an ellipsis. For example "I think it strange" means "I think it is strange" and "I think her quite strange" means "I think she is quite strange" and it's used by writers/speakers because it's more succinct (i.e. quicker and conveys just as much information). So the missing word is "is". If you were less sure and though it was only possibly strange you'd have to use the full construction "I think it may be strange". – Lisa Sep 6 '11 at 3:04
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    Well you could substitute "is," but you could also substitute "to be." I think it to be quite strange passes in my book, though I will agree it isn't perfectly clean. Could you explain what you mean with the "less sure" comment? In any case, the fact that the word after "think" seems to take accusative case (I think him strange) adds to this point. While I don't know precisely what ellipsis entails--it is a pretty loose linguistic term--it doesn't usually involve changes of case. So if this were simply an elliptic deletion I'd expect nominative case (* I think he strange). – tdhsmith Sep 6 '11 at 3:22
  • @lettuce: Yeah I'd say ellipsis should normally not entail the changing of words—just leaving some out on purpose that can easily be supplied by the reader. "Him/her" would seem to point to ellipsis of to be rather than is, if any. // Whether or not you call this ellipsis or just a separate construction is perhaps merely a matter of definition. Cf. she seemed/appeared [to be] happy. Cf. also she looked happy and I painted the house green, which indicate that at least there exists a similar construction without ellipsis. I think Occam's razor cuts off the notion of ellipsis here. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 6 '11 at 3:46

I believe this is a case of a trivalent verb. The "subject verb object" and transitive/intransitive models are really a simplification of the verb structure. It is possible for a verb to have more than two objects, in fact it is not terribly uncommon. This measure is called "valency" in linguistics.

For example:

Think!! -- Avalent
I think! -- Univalent
I think great thoughts. -- Divalent
I think it strange. -- trivalent

There are allegedly tetravalent structures in English, but I have never heard a good example, though, apparently, they are more common in other languages.

By no means is a pronoun required. For example:

I think quantum physics strange; spooky force at a distance indeed.

I will say that to my ear though, this structure (with think) sounds kind of old fashioned, or perhaps a little pretentious. But others may disagree with that assessment.

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  • I agree that it sounds a bit old fashioned. As to a tetravalent predicate frame, you might consider The Dutch Republic 1 exchanged Manhattan 2 for Surinam 3 with England 4. I must say I always find the distinction between complements and satellites very problematic, even with simpler predicate frames. Valency reduction and expansion make it nearly impossible. I'd rather see it as a continuum: a certain verb may expect a certain constituent to a greater or lesser degree, but no simple binary distinction between complement and satellite. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 6 '11 at 3:57

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