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I just came across the following sentence on Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker:

They it was who controlled our whole adventure...

I have the impression this a rather archaic, yet valid, construction. A contemporary writer would have favored the more standard:

It was they who controlled our whole adventure...

I have two question regarding this construction:

  1. Is it valid? Why?
  2. Can this construction be used with other pronouns or is it restricted to they? E.g., he it was who... Are there other examples of this sentence structure been used by writers? I can't find or recall any.
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Yes, it is grammatical. The complement of the copula ('they') is fronted for emphasis. It can be used with other pronouns ("He it was... "), and equally with names ("John it was who ... ") but I think it is less common with other kinds of noun phrase.

  • I'd say 'It was they who ...' provides emphasis enough; 'They it was who ...' provides a probably undesired comic effect. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 11 '17 at 22:35
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I'm no expert, but is it because the word "they" in the sentence is actually the predicate, so it needs to be "them"?

You can rearrange the sentence to test it: "it was they who..." vs "it was them who..."

I'm really out of my depth here, but it reminds me of "I am the subject, but the predicate is me", which people seem to violate when they say "They went to the store with my dog and I."

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    The predicate doesn't actually have to be "them" in this sort of English (by which I mean, archaic English). "It was they" is old-fashioned, but not a mistake – sumelic Oct 11 '17 at 21:38

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