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My friend and I have gotten into a rather passionate debate about whether Karen Paige's monologue at the end of season two of Daredevil was written in a grammatically correct fashion.

On screen, we can see that her monologue opens with the sentence:

What is it, to be a hero?

I contend, with no academic backing whatsoever, that this is a perfectly valid grammatical construction. In fact I even contend that "To be a hero, what is it?" would be grammatically correct as well, despite being incredibly stilted.

On an intuitive level, I feel 'To be a hero' is what 'it' refers to, and Karen Paige's rendering of this sentence is a re-ordering of "To be a hero, what is it?" that places the definition of the pronoun 'it' after the clause that employs it.

My friend, on the other hand, points out that none of the common grammar guides surrounding commas actually contain rules that cover this construction, and furthermore feels from his intuition that the sentence is confusing because it sounds as though it could be interpreted as Karen Paige asking someone named 'to be a hero' the question 'what is it.'

My friend feels strongly that the, correct way to write this sentence is without the comma: 'What is it to be a hero', however I object to this, because in my mind, it changes the emphasis of the sentence.

My opinion is that with the comma, because the sentence is in a reverse order, extra emphasis is placed on "What is it", whereas in my friend's version the emphasis is on "to be a hero". My friend doesn't feel this is the case.

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    Both versions are 'grammatically correct' - whether or not to use a comma is just a stylistic choice. Jan 25, 2023 at 10:03
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    Maybe influenced by French, where questions often begin "Qu'est-ce que c'est"
    – GEdgar
    Jan 25, 2023 at 11:59
  • @KateBunting That's my argument, but is there a definitive source my Friend and I can reference that can back this up? Like, is there a well-known rule this slots into that we don't see? How do I make a convincing argument for its grammaticality without simply saying "it is grammatical, I swear!"
    – SU2SO3
    Jan 25, 2023 at 17:25
  • I don't think it's "grammatical". To my mind, the comma is irrelevant. But I'll accept What is to be a hero? on the grounds that the complement X in What is X? can be an infinitive-based expression as well as a noun (same as I want a drink / to drink or He knows John / to keep quiet). I'd prefer What is being a hero?, though. Jan 25, 2023 at 17:55
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    @FumbleFingers From COCA: "What is it to live the good life?" / "What is it to be a human?" / "What is it to be a father?" / "What is it to be a novelist?" / "What is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun." / "What is it to be a philosopher?" / "What is it to be a child if not to think and want as a child does? /"What is it to have one's young life intruded upon by the very worst aspects of this intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?" / "What is it to be a storyteller?" - a sample. Seems it's definitely grammatical for some esteemed authors. Jan 26, 2023 at 16:26

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You are correct that the use of a comma does indeed change the emphasis of the sentence. However, that is the only difference between the sentences. There is nothing grammatically incorrect about either of the sentences. As mentioned in the comments, this is something that is up to writer regarding the way in which they intend the question to be read (and interpreted).

Based on the way in which Karen says the sentence in the show, it makes more sense to me that they meant for there to be a comma. Although, as mentioned, if it weren't for the dialogue, both would be equally valid.

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