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I understand that a sentence can have more than one subject, but I don't understand the grammatical role of he in the question below and which verb he is performing if he is also a subject.

Who is he?

My understanding is that the above question is a request of information, and hence, the implied recipient of the question, you, is the subject pronoun. The question, when presented explicitly, would be as follows:

Who (do you think) is he?

If my assumptions are correct, wouldn't that make he the object pronoun, since the subject you is performing the verb think on the object he? However, I read online that him is the object pronoun, not he, so I can only gather that my assumptions are wrong, somehow.

And if they indeed are, that would mean the implied you and the pronoun he are both subjects and he is performing the verb is, but I am not sure.

Please enlighten me if you understand what I am asking. It is much appreciated.

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  • It's important to understand that forms of the verb "to be" (such as "is") are peculiar in several ways. One of them is that the "subjective" version of pronouns are used on both "sides" of "is", so it would be "He is he" rather than "He is him" or "Him is he".
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 18, 2020 at 2:21
  • Put another way, you could say that forms of be are always intransitive, and therefore never can have a direct object. Apr 18, 2020 at 2:26
  • Object, pronoun etc, are syntactic terms, so you have to analyse the clause syntactically, not semantically, thus "he" is subject and "who" is the predicative complement of "be". The addressee is unknown, perhaps some arbitrary person.
    – BillJ
    Apr 18, 2020 at 8:01
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    Does this answer your question? "That was me" vs. "That was I", etc etc Apr 19, 2020 at 18:29
  • You might edit your question to tell us why you believe that inserting "do you think" is somehow a more explicit form of the same thing.
    – tchrist
    Apr 19, 2020 at 19:34

3 Answers 3

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He is a subject pronoun in Who is he? The question has subject-auxiliary inversion; it it asking the listener to fill in the blank in the corresponding uninverted statement He is [noun phrase]. E.g. "He is [my brother]" or "He is [the friend I told you about]." It's the same sort of structure as Where is he?

A piece of evidence that he is the subject is that when the pronoun after the auxiliary verb changes, you have to use a different form of the auxiliary verb: Who are they?, Who am I? English verbs agree with their subjects.

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  • This is the right answer. Other possible illustrative wh- questions with inflected be verbs in them showing agreement include: Which one was his? What are they? Which ones were ours? How is he doing? How are we today? Who am I to say is calling? O brother, where art thou? Why wert thou angry with me?
    – tchrist
    Apr 19, 2020 at 19:37
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I recently read that the question of the subject of a sentence that starts with a "wh" word was controversial, so disagreement on it is probably quite normal.

The one point where I think there is clarity here is the correct form of the pronoun "he".

Pronouns in English decline just like all verbs in German and Latin. This means that they take different forms depending on how they are used in a sentence.

"He" is the nominative case of the pronoun here. The nominative case is used for pronouns in two positions: as the subject of a sentence, and as the predicate nominative, which follows an intransitive verb -- in this case, "is". Intransitive verbs are verbs that don't take a direct object -- objects that are not directly acted upon through a verb.

"Him" is the accusative case of the pronoun. It is used when the pronoun is the object of an action verb or a preposition -- "I saw him", "I gave him this" ("this" is the direct object here, while "him" is the indirect object that follows the implied preposition "to") , "this is for him". It is not used with an intransitive verb.

It's true, as @No Name mentions, expressions like, "It's him" are used frequently. Technically, however, the proper form would be "It's he". Once in a while, people do use this form, but I think it's become increasingly rare over the years. Nevertheless, it's the grammatical choice.

I hope that answers your question, at least the part about the role of "he" in the original sentence, and that it's helpful.

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  • 'Technically' has no place on ELU. Here, it's a veiled appeal to authority. But no less a grammarian than Professor G Pullum {Ann Gibb; article from DC Santa Cruz} has said 'The forms with nominative pronouns sound ridiculously stuffy today. In present-day English, the copular verb takes accusative pronoun complements and so does "than." My advice would be this: If someone knocks at your door, and you say "Who's there?" and what you hear in response is "It is I," don't let them in. It's no one you want to know.' Apr 19, 2020 at 18:27
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Firstly, and to answer your question, the verb to be has historically used what is called a "predicate nominative" when it needs a second object. I say "historically" because constructions like "It's me!" or "That's him!" are becoming increasingly common, but in this case "Who is he?" and similar questions have retained the predicate nominative. This is why both "who" and "he" are in the subject case.

Secondly, questions like this do not have implied subjects. The subject of the question is "who", which you can see because it is in first position and a noun phrase (specifically, a pronoun), and the main verb - not the auxiliary! - is "is". The only (prescriptively) grammatical sentences with implied subjects are direct commands, with an implied "you" in the (empty) first position, but I'm getting off topic.

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  • I have upvoted this because of your second paragraph, which addresses the principle behind the question.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 19, 2020 at 9:50

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