Suppose we put in play the rule that lay is used transitively and lies is used intransitively. How do you analyze constructions such as –

Where the responsibility (lies/lay) has yet to be determined.

At first glance, I score this as dummy where subject of subject clause, the responsibility object of subject clause, and lay as a transitive verb; and all forming a subject of a passive sentence. Dummy subjects are notorious for appearing in anastrophic constructions. The fact that "where (lies/lay) the responsibility ..." also works (albeit awkwardly in the example above) seems to support this idea.

The alternative would be to treat "where the responsibility lies" as the subject and then call the verb intransitive. This doesn't seem to work –

Remember that a prepositional phrase will never contain the subject of a sentence. Sometimes a noun within the prepositional phrase seems the logical subject of a verb. Don't fall for that trick! You will never find a subject in a prepositional phrase.


Beyond this, my attempts to figure out how the subject clause is working have left me in the weeds.

So is the verb (lay/lies) in the example transitive or not? What is the subject of the whole sentence?, and how is this subject broken down?

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    You're confusing there (a dummy, not present in this sentence) with where (an interrogative/relative wh-word marking an embedded question subject clause in this sentence). So, no dummies. Also, the responsibility is the subject of the embedded question subject clause, not the object. Aug 19, 2018 at 17:15
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    "Where the responsibility lies" is a subordinate interrogative content clause (embedded question). It can be glossed as "The answer to the question 'Where does the responsibility lie?' has yet to be determined." The subordinate clause functions as subject of the sentence, and has "the responsibility" as subject and "where" as complement.
    – BillJ
    Aug 19, 2018 at 17:16
  • @JohnLawler so where is neither a preposition nor a noun? This is where I ran out of options and ended up in the weeds. Do "interrogative/relative wh-words" fall into a category I would have heard of in high school, or is that as good as it gets?
    – Phil Sweet
    Aug 19, 2018 at 17:21
  • I would take "where" to be a preposition, where the meaning is "at what place?" Very few dictionaries get this right, but this one does: link
    – BillJ
    Aug 19, 2018 at 17:36
  • Wh-words in English are their own category; they can function as prepositions or adverbs, but what they're for is to mark certain clause types and constructions. Calling them by one POS name or another exclusively is silly, since the categories are so fluid. Aug 19, 2018 at 21:33

1 Answer 1


"Where the responsibility lies" is a noun clause; as such, it can easily be the subject of a sentence. It's no different from "What I like" ... or "Whose woods these are..." The "Wh" words are relative pronouns, which can be used to introduce adjectival, adverbial, or noun clauses.

(BTW, I'm new here, so I don't have enough points to comment like the cool kids. When I will be able to post comments remains to be seen.)

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