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What is/are most crucial is/are

Discussion in 'English Only' started by peptidoglycan, Sep 18, 2008.

  1. peptidoglycan Senior Member

    Turkish
    Which sentence is grammatically incorrect?

    A)What is most crucial is a clear explanation.
    B)What are most crucial are clear explanations.
    C)What is most crucial is clear explanations.
    D)What is most crucial are clear explanations.

    The question seems very complicated to me. Could you please make a clarification?
     
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2008
  2. Tegs

    Tegs Mód ar líne

    Wales
    English (Ireland), Welsh, Irish
    I would go for A.

    B is definitely incorrect.

    C sounds ok to me as well, but D sounds a bit strange - but I'm not 100% sure which of those two is the most grammatically correct, so just stick to A!
     
  3. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    B sounds odd, but the other three are fine. D is an inverted sentence, like "Quite bewildered was I when no explanation was offered." I prefer C or D to A because I think the intended meaning is explanations in general, not an indefinite explanation.

    Another possibility is:

    B') What are most crucial is clear explanations.
     
  4. myosotisx3 New Member

    Canada English
    A) Correct
    B) Incorrect - "crucial" is singular, therefore it needs "is"
    C) Incorrect - "explanations" is plural, therefore it needs "are"
    D) Correct

    I can't really explain. I might come back and edit.
     
  5. peptidoglycan Senior Member

    Turkish
    Thanks a lot.
     
  6. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    This is a lot to explain at once, but:

    A) What is most crucial is a clear explanation.
    OK grammatically because everything is singular. I am not fond of this version because I feel we really mean to be talking about explanations that are clear, not just about an explanation in the abstract.

    B) What are most crucial are clear explanations.
    OK grammatically because everything is plural, but quite odd because we use a superlative usually to "single" something out.

    B') What are most crucial is clear explanations.
    OK because the relative clause can be considered an abstract subject, plural in form but singular in meaning (as we might say "Ham and eggs is my favorite breakfast", or even "What ham and eggs are is my favorite breakfast").

    C) What is most crucial is clear explanations.
    OK because the verb agrees with the subject (as we say "I am a person", not "I is a person.").

    D) What is most crucial are clear explanations.
    OK as an inverted sentence (subject delayed, as in "A person am I", unusual but not incorrect.).
     
  7. peptidoglycan Senior Member

    Turkish
    Thank you very much Forero. I don't understand your explanation associated with the choice D)
     
  8. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    A structure in which a verb precedes its subject is called "inverted" since the order is reversed from the usual. Sometimes inversion just doesn't "work":

    My favorite subject in college was girls. :tick:
    In college, girls were my favorite subject. :tick:
    My favorite subject in college were girls. :cross:

    In D, "what is most crucial" is singular, but the verb are is plural, agreeing with what follows. Thus what follows must be the subject, and the structure is "inverted".

    To me, D is a workable inverted sentence, as is "Most crucial are clear explanations." If I had to explain why, I think I would say that the relative clause "what is most crucial", though acting as a noun phrase, does not definitively name something but kind of describes or characterizes something, namely, clear explanations. In contrast, "my favorite subject" and "girls" do define and name rather than describe.
     
  9. jackswitch Junior Member

    Osaka, Japan
    Australian English
    I'm going to go out on a limb here and say D is the answer. The reason a test or exercise which aims to teach English would include this question is probably because it wants to test whether you can spot the consistency of "is" and "are". Notice that in A, B and C, the verb is always consistent i.e. if the first verb is "is", the second one is "is" also.

    As for B, "crucial" isn't singular, it's an adjective. You can say "These elements are crucial", no problem. And so, "What are most crucial are these elements."

    As for C, as Forero said, you can use "is" with a plural like that, as in the example "My favourite subject in college was/is girls".

    A seems clearly fine.

    A good way to memorise this "rule" in English is:

    What is _____ is ______ .
    What are _____ are _____.

    What is pedagogically incorrect is this question!! It looks unnecessarily nit-picky to me, and furthermore, using sentences like these makes your writing look terrible and difficult to follow. In my opinion (A) is the only sentence here that looks even remotely normal in English.

    Rather than looking at it as either grammatically "correct" or "incorrect", you'd be much better off ranking them in terms of how normal they seem to native speakers. In that case I'd say, from best to worst: A, C, B, D.

    P.S. There's a slight chance that, according to this test/exercise, the answer is C. This would mean they want you to use "are" since "clear explanations" is plural. But, as I said, this is the way people actually talk, and so it sounds more or less right to native speakers. Discrepancies like this always come up between the way native speakers talk and the instruction given in English-teaching books which are based on outdated or overly technical rules.

    Hope my rant helped you!

    jack
     
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2008
  10. peptidoglycan Senior Member

    Turkish
    Your explanation is excellent Jackswitch. Thank you very much for the clarification. I understand thoroughly.
     
  11. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Urbana-Champaign, IL
    Am. English, Pal. Arabic (See profile)
    You seriously think B' is correct? :eek: In my opinion, it does not work because neither what are most crucial nor clear explanations is singular, so using a singular verb is incorrect whether or not there is inversion.

    I do not think what are most crucial is like ham and eggs. What is most crucial is the default construction; using are necessarily means that the writer is thinking of multiple things that are crucial, so I don't see how what are most crucial can be "singular in meaning."

    But grammatical considerations aside, I simply can't swallow that sentence, no matter how many times I read it. It sounds horribly incorrect.
    I see what you're saying about D, but I think it's a stretch. Inversion has its limits and can't be done at random. D is not a natural or idiomatic English sentence.
     
  12. peptidoglycan Senior Member

    Turkish
    You wrote as if you were a linguist, elroy. Thanks.
     
  13. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    There is no inversion in B', but it sounds more natural to me than B. I see "what are most crucial" as a singular abstraction, in spite of its form. The following three sentences all work for me for the same reason:

    What are/constitute the most crucial thing is clear explanations.
    It is clear explanations that are most crucial.
    What are most crucial is clear explanations.

    The plural are anticipates clear explanations, but "what clear explanations are/constitute", like "what ham and eggs are/constitute", is an abstraction and is therefore singular.
    D seemed less grammatical to me, at first, than any of the others, but I don't see this as inversion at random. The limits I imagine for inversion of a linking-verb sentence appear to apply here. In particular, the complement and subject are still distinguishable because "clear explanations" names something definite, but "what is most crucial" describes or characterizes rather than really naming anything. The meaning of "what is most crucial" is very close to the meaning of "most crucial" alone, and I find the sentence:

    Most crucial are clear explanations.

    inverted and unusual, but acceptable. I now feel the same about D.
    In terms of grammatical clearness, A and B are perfect, C is just fine, D is C's "evil twin", and B' is curious indeed.

    But in terms of what looks natural or normal, I would rank B' and C first, D and A in the middle, and B last.

    In this context, A sounds forced, in my opinion. If the writer is, as I imagine, talking about explanations in general, he or she really should not substitute an indefinite singular just to make verbs agree. I would rather change "lots of milk" to "a lot of milk" than to say "a clear explanation" when I mean "clear explanations".
    Since C is both fine grammatically and natural as well, I would pick it as the "most likely to succeed", but which is the "grammatically incorrect" one? (B' was not one of the choices.) If forced, I would have to say D because it is mediocre for naturalness and unusual for grammaticality. In a certain frame of mind, I might say it "sounds foreign" (like Spanish instead of English, because inversion is very common in Spanish, and Spanish, like Old English, avoids taking a third person singular as the subject when there seems to be a choice).
     
  14. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Urbana-Champaign, IL
    Am. English, Pal. Arabic (See profile)
    The second sentence is natural, but not the other two. The difference is that in the second sentence "it" is used as an "dummy subject," so the real subject can be singular or plural. The other two sentences do not sound correct at all, and I'm frankly surprised that you think they are.
    There is a difference between "what clear explanations are/constitute" and "what are most crucial." The former can be singular because "what" is a predicate nominative/direct object within that clause, so it doesn't need to agree with the verb. However, in "what are most crucial," "what" is the subject and must agree with the verb.
    I have no problem with that sentence, but D does not sit well with me. "What is" makes a difference.
     
  15. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
  16. abenr

    abenr Senior Member

    Scottsdale, AZ, USA
    English, USA
    Perhaps I am mistaken, but "crucial" is an adjective and is neither singular nor plural.

    Abenr
     
  17. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    Consider this:

    Of proper grammar, smooth style, and clear explanations, the latter is most crucial.
    Clear explanations is the most crucial (one of the three choices).

    In a sense, we are talking not about clear explanations themselves but about "clear explanations" as an item in a list ("proper grammar", "smooth style", "clear explanations"). To me, the above underlined is works, and I imagine "virtual quotation marks" around "clear explanations" as a third-person singular subject. And in B' I can imagine them around "What are most crucial".

    Here are some pairs of sentences showing what I think is a fair analogy. Imagine this as an exercise to rewrite the italicized sentences without the dummy it using a simple transform:

    It is love that makes the world go round.

    What makes the world go round is love.

    It is you who is/are most enlightened.
    Who is/are most enlightened is you.

    It is hugs and kisses that makes/make the world go round.
    What makes/make the world go round is hugs and kisses.

    It is clear explanations that is/are most crucial.
    What is/are most crucial is clear explanations.

    Of course we use is with the dummy it, but I prefer is to are in the underlined position in the versions without dummy it, whether I choose the verb before each slash or the one after.
     
  18. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Urbana-Champaign, IL
    Am. English, Pal. Arabic (See profile)
    I see what you're saying, but for me it would have to be "what is most crucial."

    It is love that makes the world go round.

    What makes the world go round is love. This is fine.

    It is you who is/are most enlightened.
    Who is/are most enlightened is you. This sentence does not work for me. I might say "The ones who are most enlightened are you" or "The one who is most enlightened is you."

    It is hugs and kisses that makes/make the world go round.
    What makes/make the world go round is hugs and kisses. For me, if the main verb is "is," the verb in the clause has to be "makes."

    It is clear explanations that is/are most crucial.
    What is/are most crucial is clear explanations. See above.

    Here's where we disagree. I can't come to terms with "is" as the main verb if the plural verb is chosen for the "what" clause.
     
  19. jackswitch Junior Member

    Osaka, Japan
    Australian English
    These disagreements could very well come down to regional/social differences in English speaking background, by the way. We've already seen more than 6 or so different opinions about it.

    Just a thought.
     
  20. peptidoglycan Senior Member

    Turkish
    Thank you very much. But, the opinions are so different that I am stuck. :confused:
     
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2008
  21. AmericanCop1 New Member

    Virginia Beach, VA
    English - US
    I'd say D is correct. The other sentences just don't sound right to me.
    Just my opinion :)
     
  22. jackswitch Junior Member

    Osaka, Japan
    Australian English
    This proves my point... AmericanCop1, one of the answers is supposed to be incorrect, not the other way round!! Just goes to show how awkward the sentences are to begin with.

    As I said, it's an awful question for a test!
     

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