Q: I was taught (cue the “harrumph, harrumph”) that a “what” or “all” clause takes a singular verb: “What I’m asking for is people who follow the rules.” But all I hear now is plural verbs in these constructions. This is obviously a sign of the approach of the Last Days. Can you comment on this thrilling topic?
A: Your question raises two common problems in subject-verb agreement, a topic that can be notoriously confusing:
(1) When a subject is singular and its complement (the word or phrase that completes the sentence) is plural, do we use a singular or a plural verb? (The short answer: singular.)
(2) Are the pronouns “all” and “what” always singular and accompanied by a singular verb? (The short answer: no.)
Now on to the longer answers.
It can be hard to choose a verb when the subject of a sentence is clearly singular and the complement, on the other side of the verb, is clearly plural.
For example, should we say, “The thing that annoyed me most was the grammatical errors,” or “ … were the grammatical errors”?
The answer is “was.” As we’ve written before on the blog, the verb agrees with the subject, not its complement.
Here’s Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.): “When a subject and a complement of different number are separated by the verb to be, the verb should agree with the number of the subject.”
You might rephrase the sentence as “The grammatical errors were the thing that annoyed me most.” In that version, “errors” is the subject and “the thing that …” is the complement.
But correctness is one thing and graceful English is another. Even when it’s correct, a sentence whose subject and complement are different in number—one singular and the other plural—can sound awkward.
In this case, we’d advise substituting “what” for “the thing that,” since “what,” as we’ll explain below, can be construed as either singular or plural.
So we end up with “What annoyed me most were the grammatical errors” (or “The grammatical errors were what annoyed me most”).
Which brings us to problem No. 2: clauses beginning with “what or “all.”
A clause, as you know, is part of a sentence with its own subject and verb, and a clause that starts with “what” (or “all”) can present a thorny problem in subject-verb agreement.
Whether the “what” in such a clause is the subject or the object, the verb may be either singular or plural.
When “what” is the subject of the clause (and the same is true of “all”), it agrees in number—singular or plural—with the complement (as we said, the word or phrase that completes the sentence).
For example, both of these sentences are correct: “She’s eating what looks like caviar” … “She’s eating what look like tiny black marbles.” Note that “what” is construed as singular when the complement is singular, and plural when the complement is plural.
The situation is a bit more complicated when “what” (or “all”) is the object of a clause that is itself the subject of a sentence, like the one you mention: “What I’m asking for is/are people who follow the rules.”
The question here is what verb to use in the main clause. The complement is plural (“people who…”), so we would use a plural verb in the main clause (“are”).
There are many good discussions of this problem. One of the more succinct can be found in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.):
“When the what in the what-clause is the object of the verb and the complement of the main clause is singular, the main verb is always singular: What they wanted was a home of their own.”
The usage note continues: “When the complement of the main sentence is plural, the verb is most often plural: What American education needs are smaller classes.”
But, the editors add, “one also encounters sentences such as What the candidate gave the audience was the same old empty promises.” In a sentence like that, the writer is treating “the same old empty promises” as a singular concept.
Now (take a breather, if you like), there’s one other case we haven’t covered yet, and it’s the thorniest of all.
In this case, “what” is the subject of a “what” clause that is itself the subject of the sentence as a whole. Here’s American Heritage (we’ve broken the usage note into smaller paragraphs):
“When what is the subject of a what-clause that is the subject of a main clause, there is greater variation in usage. When the verb of the what-clause and the complement of the main clause are both plural or both singular, the number of the verb of the main clause generally agrees with them.
“When the verb in the what-clause is singular and the complement in the main clause is plural, one finds both singular and plural verbs being used. Sentences similar to both of the following are found in respected writers: What drives me crazy is her frequent tantrums; What bothers him are the discrepancies in their accounts.
“When the complement of the main clause consists of two or more nouns, the verb of the main clause is generally singular if the nouns are singular and plural if they are plural: What pleases the voters is his honesty and his willingness to take on difficult issues; On entering the harbor what first meet the eye are luxurious yachts and colorful villas.
“Occasionally the choice of a singular or plural verb may be used to convey a difference in meaning. In the sentence What excite him most are money and power, the implication is that money and power are separable goals; in What excites him most is money and power, the implication is that money and power are inextricably bound together.”
So what’s known as “notional agreement,” a subject we’ve written about on our blog, plays a role here.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has another good perspective on this most troublesome of “what” clauses. M-W concludes: “It is desirable to be consistent, but, in an area where notional agreement appears to hold absolute sway, it is perhaps even more desirable to be natural.”
We’ll second that, naturally. And now, presumably, we know what’s what!
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