look at who them was

Out of context, that sounds remarkably bad, but here it is in context (from Scott Kehoe, head of marketing at Audi, in an interview in a “Can Lincoln Be Cool Again?” segment on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning):

There was us and there was them, at that time, and if you look at who them was, there was Lexus, there was BMW, and Mercedes.

Now it’s better.

Start with the pronoun case in

(1) There was us and there was them

The personal pronouns serving as predicatives here have to be accusative (unless you’re a maniac about English having to have the syntax of Latin); the alternatives

(2) There was/were we and there was/were they

(with expletive, or existential, there, not the locative there of things like There were we, stuck in the slow lane; the existential is unaccented, the locative accented) are simply impossible.

Once we have accusative predicatives, the verb agreement follows. (Simplifying things some, and assuming a particular analysis for existentials), in existential clauses the subject there doesn’t determine verb agreement, so this determination falls to the predicative. But accusative pronouns don’t determine agreement either, so the verb defaults to 3sg. All of this put together gives us (1).

The pronouns in (1) are deictic, but what if we want an anaphoric 3pl pronoun (with them as antecedent) in following discourse, and if we want the pronoun to function as a subject? One possibility is to go for the nominative they; this choice —

(3) and if you look at who they were …

is certainly acceptable. But us and them in (1) can be viewed as functioning much like proper names — you might be tempted to capitalize them —

(1′) There was Us and there was Them

and then you’ll simply repeat the pronouns in following discourse, in which case verb agreement will again default to 3sg:

(3′) and if you look at who them was …

(which is where we came in).

For another situation in which defaulting to 3sg is probably involved (giving here comes me), see my “Here comes the accusative” posting on Language Log, here.


One Response to “look at who them was”

  1. Greg Lee Says:

    “Them” should have been quoted, since it only makes sense if taken as mentioning the preceding “them” in “there was them”.

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