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My classmates and I are in a bit of a disagreement on this one, so I thought I'd ask here. The sentence is as follows:

하지만 이것도 먹고사는 데 별 걱정이 없는 사람들이나 할 수 있는 일이었어요.

The sentence is part of a short text about wedding attire, I can share more context if it's required.

My argument is that "이것" should be the subject of the full sentence, since it's equated with "일" at the end. My classmates argue that the subject would be "사람들", since they are the ones being able to do something.

I'm thinking that "먹고사는 데 별 걱정이 없는 사람들이나 할 수 있는" is all part of an adverbial phrase applied to the noun "일" and shouldn't change the subject of the sentence. Also "사람들" being the subject would equate them with the aforementioned "일" (because the verb is "이다"), which doesn't make sense to me.

Am I missing something here or reading the sentence incorrectly? I'm also interested in the why / a straightforward explanation (if possible) and not just a direct answer. Thank you!

  • Sadly I'm no linguist, so I'm not certain that "adverbial phrase" is the appropriate expression for what I mean. Nothing else comes to mind and I'd be thankful if someone could correct me. – akosch Dec 10 '19 at 22:13
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Your intuition is correct. The sentence can be analyzed as:

하지만 [이것]도 [[[먹고사는 데 별 걱정이 없는 사람들]이나 할 수 있는] 일]이었어요.

이것 is the subject of the whole sentence, and 일 is the complement. "먹고사는 ... 할 수 있는" modifies 일. (I'm not sure what's the correct word in English, but in Korean it's called 관형절 - it's a clause that modifies a noun.)

Inside this inner clause, 먹고사는 데 별 걱정이 없는 사람들 is the subject, 일 is the object, and "할 수 있는" is the modified verb form.

Inside this inner subject, "먹고사는 데 별 걱정이 없는" is yet another level of inner clause (관형절), where 사람들 would be the subject: consider "이 사람은 먹고사는 데 별 걱정이 없다", or "This person does not have to worry about eating and living."

To paraphrase slightly, the whole sentence means:

But even that was restricted to those who did not have to worry about making their living.

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