What I need <is/are> some answers [What + plural complement]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by blasita, Feb 20, 2013.

  1. blasita

    blasita Senior Member

    Spanish - Spain (Madrid)
    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.

    << Moderator's note:
    As was appropriate, this question was originally added to an earlier discussion of the same construction:

    What determines ... <is/are> one's ethical views [What + plural complement]
    However, the length of the thread caused confusion, and I have split this into separate thread so that this question can have the attention it deserves.

    People should read the earlier thread. If the answer you would give there is different from the one you would give here, it would be helpful if you could explain the basis of the difference in a way that would be useful to an English learner. >>
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 20, 2013
  2. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I would use are. A plural-sounding phrase can sometimes be treated as singular, but I cannot think of a reason to do that here. Does "some answers" seem singular to you, Blasita? If so, can you explain why?
     
  3. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I would use "is."

    Using "are" super-emphasizes the plurality of "some answers," which isn't necessary or even desirable - the phrase "some answers" is conceptually singular to me. Furthermore, "some answers" isn't exactly the most formal or high-register speech, and doing the "are"-for-inverted-subject thing is more formal. There's a disconnect there.

    In another context you might want to emphasize the plurality of the complement, and then you could use "are" - "What I need are answers to these five questions." Then it seems like there are discrete and multiple "answers" rather than a general set of "answers."

    If this hyper-correcting (and even over-correcting) person is your teacher, boss, editor, or dean, maybe you should take his/her advice anyway?
     
  4. blasita

    blasita Senior Member

    Spanish - Spain (Madrid)
    Thank you for your reply, JustKate.

    Actually, I wouldn't be asking if I knew the answer to it;). What (blah, blah, blah) seems singular to me anyway, and I think that both singular and plural can be used in this case. Can you explain why a singular verb would be incorrect here, please?


    Thanks a lot, Lucas. That's what I thought: that both singular and plural were correct in this case. The person who 'corrected' me is a teacher (American), but not an English teacher, just an ex-colleague and a friend.
     
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2013
  5. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    What I need is neither singular nor plural - it is neutral and can refer to either a singular or a plural concept. That's how it seems to me, anyway.

    And I didn't say a singular verb would be "incorrect" - as Lucas has explained, "some answers" can be considered a singular concept even though the words are plural. All I said was that I wouldn't use a singular verb here.

    What I do in such cases is to generally assume that the obvious answer is usually the best one. There are exceptions, naturally, but with well constructed sentences, there shouldn't be very many. So for me, if it sounds plural it usually is plural, and if it sounds singular, it usually is singular. That is my default position. If I need to change the defaults due to special circumstances, I do so, but I start with the obvious answer.

    So in this case, what do I need? Not one answer but some answers. That sounds plural to me, so generally speaking, that's how I'd write it.

    There are cases where nothing sounds right - cases in which the conflict between a singular subject and plural predicate create a sentence that, no matter how "correct" it is, it just sounds wrong. When that's the case, I really think the best option is to rewrite. If your alternatives all sound wrong, no matter how technically correct they might be, that is a sign of a sentence that badly needs a rewrite.
     
  6. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    << No relevant current thread, following the split. >>

    Well, my two cents:
    "Are". In reference to "are" ----> answers. I'd not use "is" in regards to "need".

    Rephrase it like this, "Answers are what I need."
    And yes, some will say, "but answers is a singular thing". Maybe, maybe not. It's up to speculation. I'd still say 'are'; not to mention is sounds better to me.

    Some will disagree, but that's my druthers. That's how I would say it and will say it.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 20, 2013
  7. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    Gah! "Need" is not the subject of the verb, Filsmith. "What" is the subject of the verb, and "what" tends to be grammatically singular - although it can "borrow" plurality from elsewhere if it seems to be linked to a particularly plural complement/concept.

    My sense is that there isn't any particular reason to make that borrowing here.

    Thinking about bad-ass ex-cops in action movies, wouldn't they say "Some answers is what I need!"?
     
  8. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    I wasn't saying it was.(here we go again, eh?) ;) I realize that people may view it in two different ways. That's why I addressed both up there.
    "is" in regard to need and "is" in regard to "answers". (see the second part of what I said.)

    I basically gave argument for both ways of looking at that sentence. If you think it's in regard to "need" then I think it's "are", if you think (correctly) that it's in regard to "answers" then I still think it's "are". I'm not saying you're wrong; I'm saying I'm not wrong and "is" sounds horrible to me.

    And as for your quote, "Some answers is what I need!", I'd cringe if I heard that, unless it was a BrE movie. They do that sort of thing.
     
  9. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I just cannot understand what you mean by "'is' in regard to need, Filsmith. "Is" is in regard to what, not "need."

    "What" means "the thing or things that." If you rewrite the sentence as "The thing/s that I need is/are some answers," hopefully you can see that "is/are" links back to "the thing/s." The word "need" is part of a subordinate clause and doesn't actually enter the main body of the sentence, the independent clause "the thing/s is/are some answers."
     
  10. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    I didn't come off well in what I wrote. Again, I'm not saying it is in regard to "need". This is what I wrote:
    I didn't choose my words very well. I meant exactly what you are saying. I was trying to emphasize, to the sub-OP, that is was not in regard to need. I went on to say "answers ------>are". It's my fallacy for not wording what I meant very well. I was trying to address two issues I thought the sub-OP might have.
    1) not being sure what "is/are" referred back to (yes, it's not "need" - so I was trying to tell him this)
    2) which (is/are) to use.

    My point, in summation, was that even if he viewed it in the incorrect (is/are--->need) or the correct (is/are ---->answers), both would justifiably be "are".
     
  11. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I still don't think these are the two options.

    What [...] is/are some answers. (The thing [...] is/are some answers.)

    Either:

    A) "To be" links to the subject in the first position of the sentence: "what." Normally "what" is treated as a singular subject. Hence "is": "What I need is some answers," "The thing that I need is some answers."
    B) The speaker wants to emphasize the plurality of "answers," so the sentence is treated in an inverted way. Then we get "answers are," and "what... are."

    A) is the most everyday solution. B) is more rhetorical, but certainly possible.
     
  12. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    Yeah, that's where we slide off into disagreement. :)

    I fully believe it refers to "answers".
    I do see your point with "what" being "what....is.....____."

    To me, however, "what" is a bit ambiguous.
    "What" could be innately a plural or a singular reference; to me, it's the rest of the sentence and its structure that determine the 'are/is'.

    Would you honestly say, "What is your intentions with my daughter?"
    I'd absolutely cringe if that were spoken.

    Or how about, "What is the directions to Disney World?"
    God, help me if I heard that. It'd be hard not to correct that person (with my jaded point of view, of course).
     
  13. blasita

    blasita Senior Member

    Spanish - Spain (Madrid)
    Thank you, Filsmith.

    << Response to deleted comment. >> The last thing I wanted was to cause inconvenience. I tried to make use of an existing thread and posted my question here.

    Thank you very much everyone for your help. Very useful and interesting comments. Regards.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 20, 2013
  14. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    Now, Filsmith (#39), I'm entirely with you there. "What" is in itself neither singular nor plural, as your rhetorical questions prove.

    << Relates to previous thread. >>
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 20, 2013
  15. Cagey post mod

    California
    English - US
    Moderator's note, repeated from first post:

    As was appropriate, this question was originally added to an earlier discussion of the same construction:

    What determines ... <is/are> one's ethical views [What + plural complement]
    However, the length of the thread caused confusion, and I have split this into separate thread so that this question can have the attention it deserves.

    People should read the earlier thread. If the answer you would give there is different from the one you give here, it will be helpful if you could explain the basis of the difference in a way that is useful to an English learner.


    Thank you for your contributions to the thread, past and future. :)


     
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2013
  16. blasita

    blasita Senior Member

    Spanish - Spain (Madrid)
    First of all, thank you very much for that, Cagey. Sorry about the inconvenience, everyone.

    Hello, Kate. I can agree with that. The problem is that quite often nothing sounds so good or bad to me as a non-native speaker and then I can't rely on this. Thanks a lot for the explanation.

    Thank you, Filsmith. Yes, well, I don't think that the grammatical structure of these questions is the same as in the original sentence. In those questions, what is not the subject and subject and verb must agree. The original sentence is a cleft sentence:
    I need some answers. :arrow: Some answers is?/are? what I need. :arrow: What I need is?/are? some answers.

    Thanks a lot, Lucas and Keith.

    I hadn't been able to find this particular construction (i.e. followed by a plural noun) in my grammars , but I've just found something that is relevant to this discussion:
    So, according to Swan, a singular verb is normally used in these cases and the plural is sometimes used in informal contexts. This book is mainly based on British grammar and usage.


    Any more comments on usage (or grammar) will be greatly appreciated.
     
  17. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I hate to disagree with Mr. Swan, but I just don't agree that a what-clause is "normally" considered to be singular. There are just too many exceptions. Go to Google News, which searches "edited" websites (primarily those of media outlets), and search for "What are" and you'll see what I mean - there are hundreds of thousands of hits. Maybe by "normally," he means 60 or 65 percent of the time, but that still leaves a whole lot of times when it is either plural or neutral.

    With a subject that is neither obviously plural nor obviously singular - and "what I need" qualifies, in my opinion - the best way to determine which verb to use is to look at the complement. So in your sentence, Blasita, whether you use is or are depends on whether for you some answers represents a singular concept or a plural concept. It isn't possible to categorically say that one is right and the other is wrong.

    Of course if you're writing something for which you're going to be graded, your instructor might disagree with me there. ;) But out of the classroom, there isn't a single right or wrong answer.
     
    Last edited: Feb 21, 2013
  18. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Hi blasita

    As I said in the other thread, for me it would be What I need is some answers.

    But it's clear, both from that thread and from this one, that different people have different views on this:).
     
  19. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I really think that Swan is absolutely spot-on when he says that what-clauses should be treated as "singular unless proven plural." They should take a singular verb unless the situation absolutely demands it.

    I am surprised, however, that he would say that shifting to "are" is informal. To me, it could also be highly formal in that it's so ostentatiously rhetorical.
     
  20. blasita

    blasita Senior Member

    Spanish - Spain (Madrid)
    Thank you again, Kate. I'm afraid that this question is probably going to sound a bit silly but here we go: is it usual that a countable plural noun is interpreted as a singular noun/concept? I mean, is it because of that 'some' in this case?

    Hi, Loob. Many thanks. Yes, that's right, and this is what makes languages so interesting.;)

    Thank you, Lucas. Yes, I thought there might be regional differences on this matter, but now I'm starting to think it's more of a personal preference.
     
  21. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    UK
    English - England
    In another thread, Keith suggested that "What" can be substituted by "The thing". I agree but also add "The things" - Do you see "some answers" as a single unit or individual answers?

    The choice is yours as to whether to use is or are.
     
  22. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Remember that for me "some answers" in your example seems plural, and that's how I'd treat it. But there are times when I would treat a seemingly plural unit as singular, and that's when it's describing a single entity. Some examples:
    What I need is 8 full hours of sleep. Hours is plural, of course, but the speaker isn't talking about 8 individual hours. He is talking about a specific span of time that consists of 8 hours.
    What I want is eggs and bacon. That's my favorite way to start the day. Normally eggs+bacon would refer to two or more different things. But in this case, eggs+bacon together are one thing: the speaker's favorite breakfast. Therefore the correct verb here is the singular is.

    I think all native speakers at times treat a seemingly plural unit as singular. We all agree, I think, that at times it's necessary. We just don't always agree on specific examples.

    I am sure you are right about that. I know for a fact that AmE speakers don't all agree on this. And actually, I agree with Lucas that sometimes the shift to are can sound really formal in some sentences.

    Yes, it really is.
     
    Last edited: Feb 21, 2013
  23. blasita

    blasita Senior Member

    Spanish - Spain (Madrid)
    Thank you, Paul. Yes, I liked Keith's explanation there.

    Okay, but what about this one: What I need are some glasses. Would it also be the same case? Glasses is a plural noun itself, so you can't see them as individual items/glasses, can you? I'd use only a singular verb: is.

    Thanks, Kate!
     
  24. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    So would I, blasita: What I need is [some] glasses:)
     
  25. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    In English, the subject comes first, and the verb agrees with the subject:

    The main thing I need is some answers.
    Answers are what I need most.
    I am not your parents.
    Your parents are not me.

    So the question reduces to: Is "what I need" singular, or plural?

    The answer is that "what I need" is usually singular, especially if I do not know what I need, but "what I need" can mean either "the (main) thing I need" or "the ones/things I need", so we have a choice.

    What I really need is clear explanations.
    We have string beans, onions, cabbages, and scallions, but of these what I need most are the cabbages.

    Cleft sentences are a rather special case, and they can seem strange to the uninitiated:

    It is clear explanations that are most crucial. [It is, not they are; that, not what. This is a cleft sentence.]
    What are most crucial is clear explanations. [Here what here plays the role of it and that put together. This is a pseudo cleft sentence.]

    For the sentence in question I would normally use the psuedo cleft structure and say "What I need is some answers", but are might fit too, depending on context.
     
  26. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    For me, it still breaks down to whether or not the inverse would be appropriate.

    "Some answers is what I need." would not sound right to me; but then again, neither would "What I need is some answers."
     
  27. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I probably would too, but...I do use are with glasses quite often, e.g., "Where are my glasses? I can't see a thing." "Aren't your glasses kept in that drawer?"

    But glasses is not a great example because even though it's sort of singular, it's usually treated as a plural. I don't think many native speakers would, for example, refer to glasses as it - they'd refer to them as they, even if it's just one pair.
     
  28. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    Forero is spot-on. Reversibility is a red herring, as the example of "I am not your parents"/"Your parents aren't me" demonstrates.
     
  29. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    I really don't think that's the issue, Kate - the issue is whether "What I need" is followed by a singular verb, not whether "glasses" is singular or plural:)
     
  30. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I think it is pertinent to this question. The way you choose the verb is based on the subject and the complement and whether they are singular or plural, and all I'm saying is that glasses isn't a great example because it's kind of both. How a person treats glasses here isn't necessarily the same way he might treat answers.
     
  31. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Ah, I see.

    So you're saying that you might say "What I need is glasses", though you wouldn't say "What I need is answers"?

    (Just trying to clarify:).)
     
  32. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    Reversibility or not; I'd still not say "What I need is some answers". I'll concede that many here disagree with me, but I still think that sounds dreadfully awful.


    slightly a side note/question: Would you all really say, "Where is my shoes?" I mean, they are a pair, which can be considered singular. Do you really think that 'sounds' even remotely 'correct'?
     
  33. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod



    Exactly.
     
  34. blasita

    blasita Senior Member

    Spanish - Spain (Madrid)
    Thank you for the explanation, Forero. And it's never been easy for me to grasp the difference between cleft sentences and pseudo-cleft sentences. I think that my grammar skills need an update.

    It's much clearer now. Thank you very much, everybody.
     

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