Is/are

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niceguyjin

New Member
English - nz
I am an ALT in a Japanese high school and was asked if this sentence is correct. From a text book: "Speed and control are what is important in email relationships".

The use of "are" and "is" in this sentence is confusing. Any ideas?
 
  • Cypherpunk

    Senior Member
    US, English
    Welcome to the board. Could you please explain what an ALT is? That has no meaning for me, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that.

    The sentence is talking about two things, so the verb should be 'are'. Some native speakers might make this mistake if they were speaking and said 'are what's important'. Otherwise, this is just wrong.
     

    niceguyjin

    New Member
    English - nz
    Thanks cypherpunk. An ALT is an assitant language teacher. Usually a native English speaker, employed in Japanese public schools to provide opportunities for students to interact with foreigners in English.

    So, just to be clear, you are saying the sentence as quoted from a text book above is incorrect?
     

    Delphicorc

    New Member
    English - Canadian
    I take it niceguyjin that you are wondering why 'are' is used initially in the phrase and then 'is' is used immediately after. The sentence as given is correct because the 'are' which is plural refers to 'speed and control' whereas the 'is' is in reference to the pronoun 'what' which is singular.
     

    Cypherpunk

    Senior Member
    US, English
    First, I would say that this is a poorly written sentence. It sounds awkward, when you juxtapose a singular and a plural verb in this way. Also, it has become common usage to use are, because what is referring to two objects or concepts, in this case.

    Perhaps it is not used that way in your neck of the woods (yet), Delphi, but that's what I usually hear in my area.
     

    niceguyjin

    New Member
    English - nz
    Delpicorc, that was my initial answer too. But under sustained pressure from my Japanese co-worker, whose command of English grammer is superior to mine, I've resorted to asking here.

    Cypherpunk, would you then rewrite it as "...ARE what ARE important..." as my co-worker suggested?
     

    Delphicorc

    New Member
    English - Canadian
    Well Cypher I would agree with you that the phrase is awkwardly worded. It would work/sound better if reorganized as: "What is important in email relationships are speed and control"
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Hello, Niceguyjin. Though I agree with Cypherpunk that this sentence could be phrased better, I agree with Delphicorc that the sentence is not grammatically incorrect. It's certainly possible to say these things:


    Speed and control are what is important in e-mail relationships.
    What is important in e-mail relationships are speed and control.

    Speed and control are the most important thing in e-mail relationships.
    The important thing in e-mail relationships are/is speed and control.


    There is considerable disagreement among native English speakers about this and similar problems. You might find some good answers for yourself by looking up the topic "subject verb agreement" with any good search engine.
     

    Cypherpunk

    Senior Member
    US, English
    niceguyjin,
    I would, with great pain, say that the sentence is written correctly from a prescriptivist standpoint. But, I would immediately point out that it is not what many native speakers would say, and I believe there is some shift in the use of are (instead of is), in a sentence like this. I have heard many native speakers say 'Speed and control are what are important in email relationships.'

    I like Delphi's solution better, but even then, I've heard many native speakers say things like 'What are important... are speed and control.' I have some friends who argue that what represents plural concepts, and that's why people are treating it as a plural pronoun. I have other friends who are apoplectic about this, when it's discussed, but even they agree that more and more people are using this plural construction in normal speech.

    Where does that leave us? Arguing over subject verb agreement.
     

    niceguyjin

    New Member
    English - nz
    Owlman5, thank you. You and all others above have provided much food for thought. I will pass on your ideas to my co-workers.
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    niceguyjin,
    I would, with great pain, say that the sentence is written correctly from a prescriptivist standpoint. But, I would immediately point out that it is not what many native speakers would say, and I believe there is some shift in the use of are (instead of is), in a sentence like this. I have heard many native speakers say 'Speed and control are what are important in email relationships.'

    I like Delphi's solution better, but even then, I've heard many native speakers say things like 'What are important... are speed and control.' I have some friends who argue that what represents plural concepts, and that's why people are treating it as a plural pronoun. I have other friends who are apoplectic about this, when it's discussed, but even they agree that more and more people are using this plural construction in normal speech.

    Where does that leave us? Arguing over subject verb agreement.
    Owlman5, thank you. You and all others above have provided much food for thought. I will pass on your ideas to my co-workers.
    Jin, you are welcome. Cypherpunk and Delphi have both given you good answers. In thinking about Cypher's observations, I too have noticed that many people do say things such as "What are important are speed and control." I think that speakers who use this construction use "what" to signify "those things". Thus:

    "What are important are speed and control" is the same as saying
    "Those things that are important are speed and control."

    This is an idiomatic saying, and I share Cypher's view that "descriptive" vs "prescriptive" grammar often disagree about what is correct and what is not. Many grammarians would likely deny the "correctness" of the example, but others would allow its use. In the end, there are no easy answers here. Your interest in English seems sincere, and I'm sure you'll be able to find an answer that satisfies you with a little effort. You might also take a look at "subject predicate agreement" in your search.

    Good luck in your search!
     
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