Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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?

6 Responses to “What You Need”

  1. I think you’re correct in your assessment that the form of be in “What you need are some muscles to go with your healthy heart and lungs.” is used to equate things. In fact, in an anaphoric sense, [what you need] = [some muscles]. Thus, as [some muscles] is plural, so is [what you need]. So I don’t think that “Peter Parker and Spider-Man are the same person.” is an analogous example in this case.

    Compare these sentences:
    What you need are some muscles to go with your healthy heart and lungs.
    You need some muscles to go with your healthy heart and lungs.
    What do you need to go with your healthy heart and lungs?
    Do you need some muscles to go with your healthy heart and lungs?

    Relatedly, sentences such as “One prime location are pictures hanging on the wall behind a bed.” have bothered me for quite awhile. I generally change the are to is, simply because of the subject agreement, but I nearly always feel that it sounds stilted. Unfortunately, depending on the sentence, leaving it as are can also sound funny. So if it’s really bothering me, I try to reword it. (The grammaticality of this type of sentence sometimes depends on how many times you read it.)

  2. Glen said

    It seems like this phenomenon is related to the fact that English allows poetic syntax reversals like “Strong was he” and “Loyal were they.” These reversals reinforce the idea that the subject and predicate are reversible, and thus in some sense interchangeable, in sentences with be verbs.

  3. Julie said

    Subject and predicate can certainly be reversed in position on occasion, but I think the question at hand has to do with the word “what.”

    I disagree with your assertion that “noun clauses are standardly singular.” “What,” “who” and “which” are neither singular nor plural. They (and phrases formed with them) take the number of the referent, not necessarily a “predicate nominative,” but the actual thing that the “what” refers to. “What are those?” “Who are they?” “What we need are some paintings!” (I can think of an exception: “Who’s coming?” can take a plural response and sometimes requires one.)

    Notice how “that” follows its referent as well: “…things that go ‘bump’ in the night…”

    I distrust any theory involving “predicate nominatives.” The fact that occasionally the subject may come after the verb does not convert it into a predicate. When I was in school, I had a teacher, anxious to correct our provincial (rural California) speech, who tried to teach us to say “It is I.” We mocked her for her troubles, and no one picked up the phrase. No, we continued to say “It’s me,” just like our parents said. No one picked up the idea of “It am I,” either, which would be a logical extension. By contrast, the rhetorical question, “What am I?” is well established, along with its “who” variant.

    The real problem of your example sentence is its false equivalency. “One location” does not equal “pictures.” To make it equivalent: “One prime location is (in, behind, under) the pictures hanging on the wall behind a bed.” “One prime location” has an explicit number, and cannot be plural without changing that number.

    I expect the speaker knew that sentence was awkward, but couldn’t come up with a better way to say it at that moment.

  4. The Ridger said

    I pretty much agree with Julie (noting in passing that Chaucer did in fact say “It am I”, but also that that doesn’t mean we should; much has changed since then!). The WH- words are actually fronted predicates in many questions, not subjects, and it’s not surprising that the verbs don’t agree with them.

  5. Neal said

    In response to Glen, Julie, and the Ridger (mostly Julie, and Gordon, I’ll get to you later):

    First of all, let me straighten out some terminology, since Glen starts by talking about reversing subject and predicate, and Julie continues it, and the Ridger talks about “fronted predicates”. I rarely talk about predicates here, because I usually use that term with a specialized meaning when I’m talking formal semantics. If I did talk about predicates here, I would use the term to refer to verb phrase (the term I usually use); i.e. the main verb and all its dependents except for the subject. The term I was actually using was predicate nominative (sometimes called a predicate noun).

    With that said, good point, Glen, about reversibility of subjects and predicate nominatives or predicate adjectives (strong, loyal).

    Julie writes, “I distrust any theory involving “predicate nominatives.'” Feel free to use whatever term you prefer for “complement of a verb that equates its complement with its subject.” If I were talking with syntacticians, I’d just call it a complement, a term that includes predicate nominals, predicate adjectives, direct objects, required infinitives, etc.

    On to Julie’s comment:

    “What,” “who” and “which” are neither singular nor plural. They (and phrases formed with them) take the number of the referent, not necessarily a “predicate nominative,” but the actual thing that the “what” refers to.

    I agree with you on which, but not on who and what. As I wrote in a post a few years ago, who and what are singular (at least when it comes to making them agree with a verb). As you point out, Julie, even if you know more than one person is coming, you still ask, “Who’s coming?” and not “Who are coming?” Even if you know that many things are in your friend’s junk drawer, you’d ask, “What’s in there?” and not “What are in there?”

    Where things get tricky is in questions like What are those? and Who are they? Let’s lay those aside for a moment and look at questions like What are they doing? and Who are they talking about? The subject of each question is they, although it appears after the auxiliary verb are. What is the direct object of doing; sometimes it even appears in the normal direct-object position, like when you’re asking in disbelief, “They’re doing WHAT?” Similarly, who is the object of about; you could also phrase the question, “They’re talking about WHO(M)?”

    Returning to What are those? and Who are they?: Just like in the other examples, the subjects in these sentences are after are: those and they. What and who are, as the Ridger notes, predicate nominatives that have been moved to the front to make a question. You could also phrase these questions as echo questions: “Those are WHAT?” “They’re WHO?” The point is that the rule that who and what are singular holds up, even in the face of seeming counterexamples like What are those? and Who are they?.

    Julie writes, “The fact that occasionally the subject may come after the verb does not convert it into a predicate [nominative].” We’re in agreement here, as I hope my comments above make clear.

    Julie:

    When I was in school, I had a teacher, anxious to correct our provincial (rural California) speech, who tried to teach us to say “It is I.” We mocked her for her troubles, and no one picked up the phrase. No, we continued to say “It’s me,” just like our parents said.

    Yep, that’s a dumb rule. Who decided that just because Latin used a different case for complements of “to be” than it did for other verbs, English should do likewise? I wish the grammar textbooks would just say, “Use subjective case for subjects only. For anything else (verbal complements, objects of prepositions, standalone) use objective case.”

    Julie:

    No one picked up the idea of “It am I,” either, which would be a logical extension.

    This wouldn’t be a logical extension. Even though the verb be is equating it and I, only the it was the lucky winner of the coin toss for subjecthood, so the verb should be is, whether you’re saying the natural It’s me or the stilted It is I. If you want I to be the subject, you say, “I am it.” (One, two, three, get off my father’s apple tree, and no tagbacks!) As for Chaucer’s It am I, I dunno; maybe it’s yet another swapping of subject and predicate nominative.

    Julie:

    By contrast, the rhetorical question, “What am I?” is well established, along with its “who” variant.

    The reason I sounds so much better here than in It is I is that here, I is the subject, not the predicate nominative. (See earlier discussion of What are those?)

    Going back to the beginning of Julie’s comment: “I disagree with your assertion that ‘noun clauses are standardly singular.’” Actually, they are. I remember teaching this right out of the textbook to my EFL students; you can also find a discussion here. And now we’re back to the point I was raising: Very often, when the predicate nominative (or whatever you want to call it) is plural, and the subject is a wh-noun clause, writers will make the verb plural. Often enough, and regularly enough, that maybe it should be a rule in the standard grammar. Not a requirement, since you’ll find both “What we need is some pictures” and “What we need are some pictures”, but an option.

    • The Ridger said

      You’re of course correct that the predicate includes the verb. I should have said “element of the predicate” – even adverbials can be fronted in wh-questions (where did they meet? when did it happen?).

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