The questioned sentence is:

In order to find out who _______ might be, they agreed to hang their straw hats up before the door, and he whose hat was blown away was to yield himself up to his fate.

The exact word in the original article is "it", but I am not sure if "he" can also be used.

Which word is more proper to be filled in the blank,"it" or "he"?

Are they both OK here?


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    Your example involves a subordinate interrogative clause. Your example could be paraphrase as: In order to find out the answer to the question "who might it/he be?", they agreed to . . . – F.E. Nov 12 '14 at 3:41
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    The reason why the "it" version is possible is because your example involves a truncated it-cleft. Consider: It might be Tom (that is at the door) --> (interrogative) Who might it be (that is at the door)? --> Who might it be? (truncated); and when that interrogative is a subordinate clause (as it is in your example), it becomes: who it might be. – F.E. Nov 12 '14 at 4:25
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    Of course, the "he" version is fine, as the main clause interrogative could be "Who might he be?", and as a subordinate clause, it becomes "who he might be". – F.E. Nov 12 '14 at 4:29
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    If you wait a day or so, someone (else) will probably write an answer post that will explain the grammar behind all this. ("he" will work if we can assume that all the farmers are male--which we can since the story assumes that too, due to "he whose hat was blown away was to yield himself up to his fate".) – F.E. Nov 12 '14 at 6:05
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    Er, that's a different type of question, one which could be related to "singular 'they' ". For instance, one possibility, which would use singular they, could be: "Someone must have eaten my food. I wonder who they might be?" <-- that's just one possibility. And so, your last question might be more about, er, "style"; it isn't really about grammar per se. – F.E. Nov 12 '14 at 6:51

"It" is the correct choice.

When the sentence is read alone, "who he might be" sounds a little like asking for the identity of a pre-specified person, whereas "who it might be" sounds like asking "which person?"

However, interestingly, "he" sounds more acceptable when read in the context of the full story. Because it's a fable, its style and and cadence makes using "he" appear more natural than in the stand-alone sentence.

  • It sounds to me that if "he" is used, then the speaker is probably quite sure that a specific person exists there, and knows his gender. If "it" is used, the speaker is not quite sure about if there is any person or whether that person is male or female. I must say I am a little confused. – dennylv Nov 12 '14 at 5:15

The correct word is "it" used for identifying or emphasizing that you are referring to a particular person or thing.

I think the pronoun "he" does not fit in this context, which may be used for a specific person such as "I often see this man in the club. Do you know who he is".

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