What You Need
Posted by Neal on June 1, 2010
Last Friday I went to iTunes to update the Grammar Girl podcast, so I could download the episode that I guest-wrote. When I did, I noticed an episode that I hadn’t listened to, called “Torn Between Two Lovers.” On the website, it’s called “Verbs Sandwiched Between Singular and Plural Nouns” (and in the URL, it’s “were-versus-was”). It turned out to be about sentences like this one about that I read in this past Sunday’s newspaper, in an article about where bedbugs like to hide:
One prime location are pictures hanging on the wall behind a bed. (“Careful sojourners check for bedbugs.” Douglas Brown, The Denver Post, May 30, 2010)
The writer has made the verb be agree in number with the plural predicate nominative pictures hanging on the wall behind a bed instead of the singular subject one prime location. With any other verb, I don’t think this would happen. If the verb phrase were finds pictures… or paints pictures… or see pictures…, there wouldn’t be a moment’s confusion over whether the verb should, instead of agreeing with the subject like it usually does, suddenly agree with a predicate nominative instead. The Grammar Girl script cites Garner’s Modern American Usage as calling this “false attraction to a predicate noun”.
So what is it about the verb be that causes this confusion? I guess it’s the fact that be is used to equate things; the thing on one side of it is identified with the thing on the other side. The sentence I always use to remind myself that it’s OK for subjects and predicate nominatives to differ in number is:
Peter Parker and Spider-Man are the same person.
Although the verb be “sandwiched between singular and plural nouns” creates more verb-agreement confusion than other verbs, I think most writers handle it without a lot of difficulty. However, there is one case of subject+be+predicate-nominative in which the predicate nominative exerts an attraction so strong that I seriously wonder if attraction in this case should be sanctioned as part of the standard dialect. Here’s an example:
What you need are some muscles to go with your healthy heart and lungs.
In this sentence, the subject is the noun clause What you need, and noun clauses are standardly singular. For example, you’d say, What you need is impossible to obtain and What you need is none of my concern instead of *What you need are impossible to obtain and *What you need are none of my concern.. But the plural predicate nominative muscles has attracted the verb into plural agreement.
When I search CoCA for the string “what you need” + be, and then zero in on just those examples with a plural predicate nominative (like the one above), I have 8 examples of what you need is, and 11 of what you need are. The attraction to the plural predicate nominative is at least as strong as the pull of the singular, noun clause subject what you need! I don’t know if this result obtains when I expand the search to other personal pronouns and other verbs, because I usually get too many hits for what [PRONOUN] [VERB] is to search through for plural predicate nominative. At least, it’s too many for me to sort through just for a blog post.
So what do you think? Should there be an exception clause to the subject-verb agreement rule in standard English, to the effect a form of be whose subject is a wh noun clause can agree in number with its predicate nominative instead of its subject? Or do we call this a rule of only spoken or nonstandard English? Or, do we say it’s not a rule at all; it’s just an error? In other words, would speakers correct themselves and make the verbs singular if given a chance, or would they not see a problem?