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It's well-known that a subject complement can be a noun or an adjective. It's not hard to make out what part of speech the subject complement belongs to— For example, in He is a pilot and She is beautiful, it's easy to say that the subject complement is a noun and an adjective, respectively.

But is this always the case? What about the sentence—

Outside is a hawker.

The subject of the sentence is hawker and it's apparent that outside couldn't be a description of the hawker, and so it can't be a noun. The possibility of its being an adjective is also ruled out because it doesn't "modify" hawker in any way.

Could it be that the sentence is actually an abbreviated version of On the outside is a hawker?

This seems to make sense because here the NP the outside could be serving as the object of the preposition on.

Is that right? Or am I confusing things here?

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    It's a case of subject-dependent inversion. The preposition phrase "outside" has been preposed to the front of the clause and the subject "a hawker" has been postposed to final position where it receives greater phonological prominence. "Outside" is of course a complement of "be". Does that help?
    – BillJ
    Dec 25, 2020 at 15:14
  • @BillJ— Thank you but my question is _since complements of the be verb are either adjectives or nouns, what's outside here in that capacity, i.e., is it an adjective or a noun? It doesn't seem to be either as I have mentioned that in the question itself. Maybe this is again a misunderstanding of grammar basics in the modern light, I don't know.
    – user40475
    Dec 25, 2020 at 15:38
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    Complements of "be" are most often nouns and adjectives, but they may also be prepositions like "outside", as in your example (and also for example in We are in your debt) and even adverbs like "slowly", as in The only way to cook it is slowly. I did say in my previous comment that "outside" is a complement of "be".
    – BillJ
    Dec 25, 2020 at 15:57
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    @First, I don't agree with the answer in the link you provided. Whatever, I think you're looking for something that isn't there. Your very simple example has subject-dependent inversion, and consists of C-V-S. The basic version is "Outside is a hawker", where the NP "a hawker" has been placed in final position where it receives greater phonological prominence. It could not be simpler!
    – BillJ
    Dec 26, 2020 at 7:13
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    Your question is about 'subject complement - noun or adjective?'. I've given you a comprehensive answer to that question. What more do you want?
    – BillJ
    Dec 26, 2020 at 7:27

1 Answer 1

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A subject complement:

  1. adds information about the subject
  2. usually comes after linking verbs

As you rightly said, 'the hawker' is the subject in your example. This could also be written as:

A hawker is outside.

Written this way, 'outside' adds information (location) about the subject. A preposition shows the relative positioning between two things, so really this is substituting for 'outside the house'.

As a rule of thumb, expressions of place and time go at the end of a sentence (as in my re-written example). They only go at the beginning of a sentence if they are not the main focus in the sentence. By this rule, 'outside is a hawker' is not correct.

'Outside, there is a hawker' sounds a little better, but is not idiomatic with the present tense. If you were telling someone that a hawker was outside the house right now it seems to me the location would be pretty important and so should follow the rule that it goes at the end of the sentence.

If you were writing in the past tense, then it is more common to see the placement first, for example:

It was warm inside the house. Outside, the snow fell.

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  • Thanks a lot for a detailed answer. Two quick questions— 1) why do you rule out the possibility of outside being a preposition instead of an adverb, which acts as the complement of be? 2) Doesn't inversion allow for constructions like outside is [NP]? Basically, what does it mean to say doesn't sound quite right? — do you mean it's not idiomatic, while still being grammatically correct or what? @Astralbee
    – user40475
    Dec 26, 2020 at 6:44
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    @User40475 1) Fair point - it probably is acting as a preposition. A preposition shows the relative positioning between TWO things, and your sentence only mentions one - the hawker. However, 'outside' is substituting for 'outside the house', which as a phrase could still be a subject complement. 2) It's not really inversion... that's where you can say "John is my teacher" or "my teacher is John" because they are the same thing. In that example, "is" means "equals". "A hawker is outside" doesn't mean "outside" and "hawker" are the same thing.
    – Astralbee
    Dec 26, 2020 at 13:29
  • Thank you once again. But may I now ask why you switched from adverb to preposition, when there isn't apparently anything wrong with outside being an adverb in the sentence? @Astralbee
    – user40475
    Dec 26, 2020 at 13:44
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    @User40475 I've correct my answer, I was wrong to call the word an adverb. However, while the word is a preposition it forms part of an adverbial phrase. Your question is about subject complements and these are never just a preposition alone. I've explained in my answer that 'outside' implies 'outside the house'.
    – Astralbee
    Dec 26, 2020 at 13:49
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    @User40475 "Outside" is a preposition phrase consisting of the preposition "outside" alone. The PP serves not as an adverbial phrase but as complement of "be". Trad grammar tends to classify "outside" as a prep when it has an NP complement and as an adverb when it has no complement. But in modern grammar the presence or absence of a complement has no bearing on the classification of "outside" as a preposition.
    – BillJ
    Dec 26, 2020 at 16:02

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