Dialogue with Dad: Predicate Nominatives

Kristy: Hi, Dad. Thanks for agreeing to this interview. I’m looking forward to you teaching me the difference between a predicate nominative and a direct object, since I’m still a little fuzzy on it. And thanks again for your gentle but firm correction to my previous post, where I identified the word tired as a direct object in the sentence, She was tired. Can you explain the role of a predicate nominative in a sentence?

Dennis: Hi, Kristy. In a previous conversation about this, we did move on to the predicate nominative, but in the sentence in the original blog post, tired is actually a predicate adjective. Do you want to talk about that or the predicate nominative? They are closely related, but one is an adjective while the other is a noun.

Kristy: (laughs) See? It’s wacky and entertaining already! Please, let’s walk me through it from the beginning.

Dennis: Not too many people think grammar is wacky and entertaining—sexy, maybe. Let’s see how far some basic definitions will go to clear up the difference between a predicate adjective and a direct object.

First, we have to establish two different types of verbs: the linking verb and the transitive verb.

A linking verb, such as a form of to be or seem or appear, identifies the predicate with the subject: I am, you are, he appears, we are, they seem.

The transitive verb expresses action and may take a direct object, while the intransitive verb (think linking verb) may not take a direct object.

Is this making sense so far?

Kristy: Yes, makes sense, but I have questions.

Is a linking verb a sort of sub-type of intransitive verb? Like other intransitive verbs, it does not require a direct object, but it does link to a word in the predicate that modifies the subject?

One thing that bothers me here: can seem really be an intransitive verb?—even a special kind of intransitive verb? You can’t just seem, can you? You have to seem something.

Dennis: No, not a sub-type, though they have similarities.  Like an intransitive verb, a linking verb does not take a direct object but rather implies a condition or a state of being, while an intransitive verb expresses action. Let’s try some examples:

Linking verb: Kristy is the Sexy Grammarian. The linking verb, is, expresses a state of being.

Intransitive verb: Kristy travels frequently. The intransitive verb, travels, expresses action but takes no direct object, instead modifying the verb with an adverb.

Seem as a linking verb: A discussion about linking and intransitive verbs may seem confusing, but I think it’s sort of wacky and entertaining.

Does that help?

Kristy: Thanks for introducing some examples. That helps a lot. For the record, my dictionary does list seem as an intransitive verb. Isn’t it true that a dictionary will list either transitive or intransitive for every verb entry? Also, can’t an intransitive verb be more flexible than a transitive one? For example, the verb to see is an intransitive verb:

I see.

But it may take a direct object:

I see dead people.

And a transitive verb always requires a direct object?

Your example, Kristy is the Sexy Grammarian, has a linking verb and then a noun, the Sexy Grammarian. So, is the Sexy Grammarian, although a noun, still not a direct object because we have a linking verb rather than a transitive verb?

Surely the Sexy Grammarian does not become an adjective because of its relationship with the linking verb.

Dennis: You’re right about each verb being designated as transitive or intransitive, although some verbs can be both, such as the verb, see, as used in your examples. See in your first example is intransitive, but in your second sample: I see dead people, see becomes a transitive verb. See the difference?

In the example, Kristy is the Sexy Grammarian, the Sexy Grammarian following the linking verb is a predicate nominative, which, by definition, is the noun that follows a linking verb and stands for the subject.

We can relate this to the DSS’s original example: What she mostly was was tired. I don’t care much for that sentence, so let’s rewrite it to read: Mostly, she was tired. We can disregard the mostly for purposes of this discussion and focus on the simple sentence, She was tired. This is analogous to Kristy is the Sexy Grammarian; however, with She was tired, we have a predicate adjectivetired—instead of the predicate nominative—the Sexy Grammarian.

As a side note, the verb, to be, is not only noted as an intransitive verb, but it has an additional role as an auxiliary verb.

Kristy: Wow, I think I get it now! All this time, I’ve been treating predicate adjectives and especially nominatives like direct objects. Thanks, Dad. I knew you could explain it to me.

Dennis: My pleasure, Kristy.

It’s Dialogue Month on The Sexy Grammarian’s Blog! This week’s posts include dialogues between the The Sexy Grammarian and my dad, my coach, and an almost-self-described grammar bottom. Subscribe now to follow the conversation.

Besides being my Dad, Dennis Billuni is a retired U.S. postal carrier, a Senior Editor for A-1 Editing, and the man who taught me how to line edit.

  1. How sweet is this? Kristy, I had no idea you were second-gen literati. I’m loving your dialogue month!

    • Thanks, Minal! I’m third generation, actually. My Oma–that’s grandma on the Dutch side–was a proofreader at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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