What determines ... <is/are> one's ethical views [What + plural complement]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by krs393, Jan 10, 2013.

  1. krs393 New Member

    bulgarian
    Is the sentence "What determines political convictions is one's ethical views and general outlook on life", should What always be followed by 'is' in this structure, or does it change to are when the subject is in plural? Thank you in advance.
     
  2. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    It stays in the singular. The structure is this: [What-determines-political-convictions] = subject [is] = verb [one's-ethical-views-and-general-outlook-on-life] = complement.

    The fact that the end of the subject-phrase contains a plural doesn't make any difference. Likewise, if the subject had been [Those things that determine political conviction], then the verb would have been plural.
     
  3. Scholiast

    Scholiast Senior Member

    Reading, UK
    English - UK
    Greetings

    I'm sorry to contradict Keith B. here, but in a sentence such as this, the noun-clause "what determines...convictions" is a proleptic complement, and the subject, in inversion with the verb, is "one's ethical views &c.".

    To amplify, the same thought could be expressed as:

    "Ethical views and general outlook on life [subject] determine [verb] political convictions [object]".

    Strict grammatical logic requires therefore "What determines political convictions are one's ethical views...", as in "Standing in the corner weretwo men".

    But Keith is right, often the strict grammar is overlooked in contexts such as these, even by native speakers.
     
  4. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    Really, Scholiast? And what about "The thing that determines political convictions is one's ethical views..."? Isn't that a proleptic complement too?

    It seems to me that the two cases are entirely parallel, unless, as you do, you introduce a different kind of rule (with a name that I must say I've never heard of in 60+ years of using English) for the sentence-subject "What + verb...".

    (The ability to invert the word-order and retain the same meaning isn't a valid criterion either, or we could say "John were :cross: there with Susan and Mary". That way madness lies. :))
     
  5. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    It should be "are". What Scholiast has said is correct.
     
  6. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Different people see this differently. For me it's very definitely What determines X is Y, regardless of whether Y is singular or plural.

    There have been a number of previous discussions.
     
  7. Scholiast

    Scholiast Senior Member

    Reading, UK
    English - UK
    Greetings once more

    Would Keith then say (to unpack the sentence another way) "Ethical views and general outlook on life is the thing which determines...."?

    I hardly think so.
     
  8. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    London
    English - South-East England
    The subject is the 'what'-clause. However, 'what' does not intrinsically have number, so it can inherit it from a predicative complement that has explicitly plural number. Both choices fit strict grammatical logic, and of course both are correct.
     
  9. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    There are many things in English that are a "grey" area; this, to me, is not one of them. People may argue and disagree on this subject (as Loob has said), but the fact remains; there are very clear rules in English (which Scholiast has spoken of) that define the "correct" choice here.
     
  10. Scholiast

    Scholiast Senior Member

    Reading, UK
    English - UK
    Hello again - what fun.

    "What" is indeed the subject - of the relative clause, not however of the main sentence. Another refomulation may clarify this:

    "Ethical views [subject of main clause]....are the things [complement] which [relative pronoun subject of relative clause] determine political convictions".

    In this Forum I may not use Latin or German to show how the syntactical structure here works, but honestly, this is how it is.
     
  11. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    The 'what' clause is the subject for me, too.
     
  12. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    And where do you derive these rules from? In English, so-called "grammar rules" are generalisations copied from good usage, not from some source which so far nobody has quoted.

    Surely nobody ever says "What I like are :cross: fish and chips." When a clause is the subject (a clause, Scholiast, not the word "what"), then in good usage it is generally assumed, I think, to be a singular abstraction replacable, as in this particular instance, by "it". "It is one's ethical views and general outlook on life".
     
  13. Myridon

    Myridon Senior Member

    Texas
    English - US
    I agree. This particular "rule" requires perfect knowledge of the end of the sentence before you start speaking so it seems to have been invented based on the opinion of editors of the written language rather than natural speakers. It's rather like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition sketch ("Our three weapons are fear, and surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.... Our four...no... ").
     
  14. Scholiast

    Scholiast Senior Member

    Reading, UK
    English - UK
    Greetings once again

    (Keith Bradford's #12)

    In this splendid instance, of course "is", singular, is right because, like "bread(-)and(-)butter", "cut and thrust", the phrase is a hendiadys, where the concept is singular. Further, in the case of
    , of course the singular is right, because grammatically "It" (no plural available) is the grammatically singular subject of the verb.

    And to Loob (#11)
    Of course "what..." is the subject - but of the subordinate clause.

    Syntactically, "Who dares, wins" has to be unpacked as "He [subject of main clause] wins, who [subject of relative clause] dares".

    Similarly, if we go back to the OP's enquiry,
    ,

    this is in its strict semantic structure:

    "Ethical views and general outlook on life [subject] are the things [complement] which [subject of relative clause] determine political views".

    By what grammarians (of Latin as well as of English) know as an ellipsis, "the things which" is economically (thank goodness) reduced to "what".
     
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2013
  15. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    Precisely. English is composed mostly of Latin and Germanic origins. This is exactly where the proof lies. If any of you study Latin and/or German, you will see this.

    Again, these rules are easily understood with knowledge of German. People make claims all the time in German that you have to know the end of the sentence in order to properly determine the beginning of the sentence; that's just not true.
    Yes, we are discussing English; which has its origins in Latin and German (as Scholiast has stated). The guidelines, structures and yes, "rules", date mostly back to those two languages.
     
  16. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    Latin, Schmatin! I learnt in my first-year university course that one languages' rules can't be applied to another.

    Please, somebody quote me a source for this "rule", in English. Otherwise, I'll beg leave to conclude that it's a private theory invented by some under-employed academic.
     
  17. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    So then, the same can be said of your "made up logic"?

    ?
     
  18. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    You avoid the question. I am basing my conclusion on my understanding, over many years of listening to native English speakers, that what most educated people most often say is, for example:

    What I like to eat is steak and chips with a glass of red wine, and then cheesecake.
    What annoys me about Germans is them coming down early in the morning and bagging the seats by the pool.
    What I don't understand about the argument to authority iswhen people uphold it strenuously and then refuse to quote their sources.

    Now, if you want to put the verb into the plural in these cases or any other, I shan't report you to the grammar police. But I don't feel under any obligation to accept that your practice is a "rule".
     
  19. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    This is bizarre. Keith is perfectly right. In the full sentence under discussion, the what-clause is the subject. Clauses take singular verbs ("What I want to find out is...", "That I was able to get up so early this morning was...", etc.). Now, on to the problematic part:

    The rule learned by all editors of English is this one: Normally, in a sentence that goes "X [to be] Y," we make "to be" agree with the noun phrase in the first position: X.

    High taxes are the greatest problem facing our society today.
    The greatest problem facing our society today is high taxes.

    Hence the most basic, common-sensical, and everyday solution to the question raised in the OP: "What determines... is X, Y, and Z."

    The rule learned by all poets and orators in English (and, begrudgingly, their editors) is this one: In extreme cases, and for rhetorical effect, the verb "to be" can agree with the noun phrase in the second position: Y. This gives an "inverted" feeling to the sentence, is very, very formal, and can be quite show-off-y.

    Hence the more high-powered (perhaps over-the-top) solution suggested by scholiast and filsmith: "What determines... are X, Y, and Z."

    Both "is" and "are" are correct; the choice depends on what kind of tone you want to project. If this is supposed to be a hyper-formal document, and you want to draw attention to this sentence, use "are"; if you just want the sentence to pass without any particular emphasis, good or bad (aside from the cleft structure), then use "is."

    Any discussion of Latin or German is completely off-topic. English grammar and usage is a separate question. Although certain structures in English may resemble certain structures in Latin or German, there is no analogical transference of grammar rules across linguistic boundaries. Here, an over-emphasis on similar structures in Latin and German distracts from the fact that we have a well-established and completely workable rule governing this particular situation in English.
     
  20. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    Why are you choosing to make "high taxes" a (in my opinion) "single entity" in one, but not the other?

    To me, following suit in your example, both would be "is".

    High taxes are is the greatest problem facing our society today.
    The greatest problem facing our society today is high taxes.

    It would seem to me that in one sentence, you are treating "high taxes" as a singular "thing"; whereas in the other, you treat it as a plural "thing".

    (Mind you, if given my druthers, I'd choose "are" for both.)
     
  21. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    That's not what he's doing.

    High taxes (plural subject) are...
    The problem (singular subject) is...
    What determines political convictions (singular subject) is...
    Why some people don't see this (singular subject) is a mystery and a bafflement to me.

    The verb is governed by the subject, not by the complement.
     
  22. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    Yes, and I guess once again, we have our disagreement. It shall just have to remain that way.
     
  23. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I'm not. "High taxes" is plural in both of the sentences I wrote in post #19. "The greatest problem...", likewise, is singular.

    As an editor, I don't make grueling semantic decisions about whether "high taxes" is the subject or the subject-complement. Instead, editors always treat the noun phrase in the first position as the subject and make the verb agree with it:

    The hedonist's main source of pleasure is fine food and fine women.
    Fine food and fine women are the hedonist's main source of pleasure.

    The best luge duo in the world is Gunter Downhillersonson and "Snowy" Nordkvist.
    Gunter Downhillersonson and "Snowy" Nordkvist are the best luge duo in the world.

    This is the most neutral and widely agreed-upon way to solve the problem of mixed-number subjects and complements.

    Your (more poetic or oratorical) solution involves deciding whether "high taxes" or "the greatest problem..." is the subject of the sentence based on semantics (deciding what the sentence is "really about"), and forming the verb agreement accordingly. This is also okay, as I said, but it can lead to very show-offy sentences and difficult-to-resolve arguments - what's more important, the lugeist's names or the concept of "luge duo"? That's why editors prefer the strictly neutral English rule of making the verb agree with the noun phrase that comes before the verb​.

    Edit: Keith is saying exactly this.
     
  24. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    What an interesting discussion. For what it's worth, I agree with Lucas and Keith (and others). There are times when an apparently plural subject is treated as singular ("Eggs and bacon is my favorite breakfast"), but generally speaking, if the subject sounds plural, it is plural, and it gets a plural verb. If it's singular, it gets a singular verb. That the thought can be rewritten so as to change this around (e.g., changing "high taxes are" to "the problem of high taxes is") is, to me, not only immaterial but also a great way to drive yourself nuts.

    You're always going to have sentences in which the number in the subject and that in the complement don't agree, so all you can do is find a workable way to deal with that. This is the most workable way, as far as I'm concerned.
     
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2013
  25. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I think the 'pluralists' here need to respond to Keith's call for a justification of their position.

    It's hard to have a discussion with people who claim external justification for their point, but then refuse to produce chapter and verse on it.

    Because I feel the tension created by the structure between singular and plural in the original sentence, I'd always write round this problem.

    My instincts would lie with the 'singular' camp, if I was forced to choose. I couldn't be reconciled with What determines these things are... It doesn't matter whether what follows is singular or plural: the damage has been done; my sense of grammatical propriety would be in open revolt. That's just not something you do to a reader if you wish to keep him with you.

    I'm not clear why the 'pluralists' aren't saying it should be What determine these things are... That would set my grammatical teeth on edge too.
     
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2013
  26. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    Kate and Thomas both raise a very important point: In most cases, it's possible to re-write a sentence so that the subject and the subject-complement are both ether singular or plural. This allows us to entirely side-step the sometimes problematic "tension" created when a plural is copulated with a singular or a singular is copulated with a plural. And, even better, by agreeing to define the "subject" as the first noun phrase in the sentence we don't have to enter into hair-splitting semantic arguments.

    Since I locate myself on the side of practicality, though, I think Kate's conclusion is particularly helpful, especially for those of us who have to deal with a lot of sentences and don't always have the luxury of complete re-writing:
    Thomas's reminder also strikes me as very helpful. You never want to use turns of phrase that alienate your audience, and sometimes rhetorical devices like this particular form of inversion can come off as pretentious or over-the-top.
     
  27. blasita

    blasita Senior Member

    Spanish - Spain (Madrid)
    << Although the question below was appropriately added to this thread, the length of the discussion was causing confusion. The question now has its own thread:
    What I need <is/are> some answers [What + plural complement] >>

    Hello, everyone.

    I've got a question about this structure.

    What I need is some answers.
    What I need are some answers.


    I'd actually use the singular is and I'm sure it's correct, but someone corrected me and said that you should use a plural verb in this sentence.

    Can someone tell me if the plural is acceptable in this case? Which one would you use?

    Thank you.

    << The question now has its own thread:
    What I need <is/are> some answers [What + plural complement] >>
     
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2013
  28. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    UK
    English - England
    "What determines political convictions is/are one's ethical views and general outlook on life" = The principle(s) that determine(s) political conviction(s) is/are one's ethical views and general outlook on life"

    This can be reduced to:

    “The principle(s) is/are one's ethical views and general outlook on life"

    The decision, now, is whether “one's ethical views and general outlook on life” is singular by virtue (a) of “one's ethical views” being a sub-set of “general outlook on life” or (b) both comprising a single whole or (c) both of these are separate and thus demand the plural.

    This will give us the answer as to whether it is principle or principles and thus determine is/are.

    As this is far too deep an analysis - and who is to say what the writer meant - I would say either is or are may be used and justified.
     
  29. RM1(SS)

    RM1(SS) Senior Member

    Connecticut
    English - US (Midwest)
    This certainly strikes me as the most sensible way to do it!
     

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