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I have just come across this textbook on English Language and Art. There appears the sentence

Byline tells you who is the author of an article.

As I remember, we all accept that the correct sentence must be

Byline tells you who the author of an article is.

Can you please explain?

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    Both seem correct. 👍🏻👍🏻
    – Sam
    Oct 25, 2023 at 6:34
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    A full sentence would use an article: "The byline tells you ..." or "A byline tells you ..." and in conversational English it would be "The byline tells you who the author is." Oct 25, 2023 at 11:58
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    What do you mean by “officially accepted”?  There is no single central authority defining the English Language.  (Which is part of the reason for many of the questions here — and the multiplicity of answers!)  And where do you get “we all accept that…” from?
    – gidds
    Oct 25, 2023 at 15:28
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    That sentence is very poor: A by-line tells you who the author of an article is.
    – Lambie
    Oct 25, 2023 at 20:53
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    It's not a sentence. It's a word "byline", then a definition, "tells you who is the author of an article". For some reason, it is a verb phrase where it should be a noun, and that verb phrase has bad grammar. The second "however" is also a mistake, and overall the writing style is unprofessional. I would throw this book out.
    – gotube
    Oct 26, 2023 at 1:33

3 Answers 3

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You are broadly right. However, the thing in the box isn't a sentence. It is a dictionary definition.

In a definition, you first have the the headword. It is often printed in bold. There is then a phrase to explain the meaning of the headword. This phrase is often a fragment. So the headword is "Byline", and the definition is "tells you who is the author of the article".

You are right that, that fragment would be better expressed as "tells you who the author of the article is". The expression in the book is okay as a fragment, but would be wrong if you expanded this fragment to a full sentence.

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    I don't see anything wrong with it. Oct 25, 2023 at 7:37
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    It seems to be about whether who acts as a subject or as a complement.
    – Mr. Wang
    Oct 25, 2023 at 8:35
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    @KateBunting - neither do I, in fact I prefer it. Oct 25, 2023 at 8:41
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    A second answer would be useful, then.
    – James K
    Oct 25, 2023 at 8:53
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    Please offer an example of expanding this fragment to this wrong sentence. Oct 27, 2023 at 18:43
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— Who is the author of the article?
— The author of the article is Allan Allandale.

The answer tells us who the author of the article is.

— Who is the author of the article?
— Allan Allandale is the author of the article.

The answer tells us who is the author of the article.


“The author is X” and “X is the author” have approximately the same meaning. They have different emphasis, and in some cases only one is appropriate. But there are many cases where both are possible.

In the relative clause, the normal word order is:

  1. the pronoun (“who”);
  2. the subject, if the pronoun is not the subject;
  3. the verb (“is”);
  4. complements.

(There can be additional complications but they don't apply here.)

In “who is the author of the article”, the subject is “who”, so the verb comes immediately after it. After that, there is one complement (a predicate).

In “who the author of the article is”, the subject is “the author of the article”, so that comes before the verb. The pronoun “who” is a predicate. It's the only complement of the verb “is” so the clause ends with “is”.


In this context, in a direct clause, it is more idiomatic in this context to say “the author of the article is Allan Allandale”, because we want to express information about the author of the article. It is natural to make “the author of the article” the subject of the sentence.

This is still true in a relative clause. However, in a relative clause, it is a little awkward to have a long fragment between the pronoun and the verb. This compensates the default tendency to make “the author of the article” the subject of the sentence. Hence the sentence “… who is the author of the article” is about as idiomatic as “… who the author of the article is”. The meaning is the same, after all.

With a shorter phrase, there would be a more marked preference for using the same subject as with direct clause. “The byline tells you who the author is” is more idiomatic than “the byline tells you who is the author”. The second sentence isn't grammatically wrong, but it's a bit awkward.

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    Subject-auxiliary inversion with wh-clauses only happens in actual questions. This grammar is what signals that a phrase is a question, rather than a mere noun phrase. That phrase isn't a question, so worse than "not idiomatic", it's wrong.
    – gotube
    Oct 26, 2023 at 1:37
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    In "The answer tells us [who is the author of the article]", the deeper structure of the bracketed part is: "The author of the article is who", where "the author of the article" is the subject, and "who" is the subject complement. If this clause is a question, then the subject and auxiliary invert, otherwise they don't. Regardless, "who" moves to the front. English doesn't allow using "who is..." as a noun phrase. It's always a question.
    – gotube
    Oct 26, 2023 at 21:56
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    @gotube No, in “The answer tells us who is the author”, the deeper structure is “X [=who] is the author”, with X as the subject. It’s in “The answer tells us who the author is” that the deeper structure is “the author is X [=who]”, with X as complement. There is only wh-fronting, no subject-auxiliary inversion (that would have made it “*…tells us is who the author”). Who prefers complement position, but not all interrogatives do; whoever, for example, is happy in both positions: “Bring whoever is your favourite” and “Bring whoever your favourite is” are both perfectly fine. → Oct 26, 2023 at 23:47
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    → If you create a sentence where only one covariant of subject and subject complement is possible, this becomes even more clear, because relativising it the wrong way around will become completely impossible. For example, “Meet the absolute screwup which is my brother” and “Meet my brother who is an absolute screwup” are both fine, but “*Meet the absolute screwup which my brother is” and “*Meet my brother [who/which?] an absolute screwup is” are completely ungrammatical, because their deeper structures don’t correspond to their respective antecedents. In the latter case, the mismatch is → Oct 26, 2023 at 23:51
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    @gotube “English doesn't allow using "who is..." as a noun phrase”: I don't understand where you're getting this rule from. Consider this question: “Who is at the door?” Now turn it into reported speech: “Alice asks …” — how do you end that sentence? Oct 27, 2023 at 10:24
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At the risk of upsetting the community: it is a common misconception that there are statutes governing English grammar, or some regulating authority which is mandated to determine what is "correct".

That is far from being the case.

The best we have is conventions, familiarity due to common-usage, and occasionally taboos.

So while "who is the author" is jarring, and would probably be avoided by any author or editor with any veneer of sophistication, it is inappropriate to refer to "officially accepted".

Now it might be that certain words or phrases are not acceptable in- for example- a court, or should be avoided because of their ambiguity, or would cause a well-schooled reader to look carefully at their context. I would suggest that the word "sanctioned" falls into that category, particularly if the context is a letter from a layman to a lawyer.

The context of the current example is an informal "scrapbook-style" guide, typeset in something close to the much-derided Comic Sans, and probably intended for teenagers. The advice might or might not be good, but don't let it bother you.

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    Thanks for mentioning the "officially accepted" aspect. The font is called Set fire to the rain
    – James K
    Oct 26, 2023 at 11:28
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    @JamesK I was wondering about it, but had limited time and definitely didn't want to be more verbose than necessary in something which could have been contentious. Oct 26, 2023 at 11:47
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    "while "who is the author" is jarring" - not to everyone. Maybe a difference between British-English and US-English?
    – MikeB
    Oct 26, 2023 at 14:20
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    It sounds maybe, slightly atypical but highly acceptable, to me -- 40 yo native American English speaker and a prolific novel reader until about 20. I'm honestly shocked so many people seem to dislike it.
    – Corrodias
    Oct 27, 2023 at 3:38
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    @UnrelatedString There's always the possibility that it was intended to be "simple English" in keeping with the overall tenor of the guide as suggested by its typesetting and layout. Alternatively that it is a (misguided IMO) attempt to simplify English by showing that the question "who is the..." can be answered by prefixing it with "tells you", hence "tells you who is the...". So again: context is important. Oct 27, 2023 at 5:52

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