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I saw a question in superuser.com, and the title ran:

What’s the fastest desktop search tools you’ve used on Windows?

It uses 's with tools, is this correct? Or should it be What's the best tool or what're the best tools?

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Thanks to everyone, and I found myself more confused. -_-# –  Freewind Sep 1 '11 at 9:55

3 Answers 3

What are should be used if it's formal. Informal occasions would accept what're.

Note that in AmEng at least, is is becoming the dominant inflection of be when used with existential there (i.e. There's many ways to do that), so I wouldn't be surprised to see this trend shift to any cases where the correct agreement must be found later in the sentence. AmEng is shifting to a preference for sentence-initial agreement rather than syntactic-role agreement.

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I'm not sure it's common to write the contract "What're" (even though that's how it would usually be pronounced). –  Neil Coffey Sep 1 '11 at 9:03
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becoming more so every day: ngrams.googlelabs.com/… –  user12549 Sep 1 '11 at 9:12
    
But compare "what are" with "what're" and you'll see that the latter is so comparatively rare that its instance count effectively appears as 0. –  Neil Coffey Sep 1 '11 at 9:32
    
Because most texts are formal in style. That's changing however as most text 'published' in electronic form does not pass through an editorial team first, so the register of written language is changing rather rapidly. –  user12549 Sep 1 '11 at 9:48
    
It's not right to interpret common grammatical mistakes as being the "direction" in which the language is moving. Grammatical mistakes in all European languages have been quite common, for centuries, but usually have given way to other mistakes, rather than being absorbed as a structure of the grammar. –  Kyle Pearson Sep 1 '11 at 12:51

You're absolutely right. This sentence has a mistake.
He has already used "is" as the verb (What's), and so, the subject should be singular as well (tool, not tools) .
Or, he could change the verb as you did to plural (What're), and thus, keep "tools". Good point out.

This is called "subject-verb agreement":

The basic rule states that a singular subject takes a singular verb, while a plural subject takes a plural verb.

Thus, the example OP gave couldn't have been "What's the fastest... tools", because "What's" is actually "What is", and thus, the verb is singular, whereas, "tools", the subject" is a plural.

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Reason, for downvote? –  Thursagen Sep 1 '11 at 8:32
    
Sorry, was about to comment: my downvote is that I see no reason to say that the subject "should" be singular. In informal English, it's common to use "What's...?" with a plural subject. As far as I can see, the style of English is completely appropriate to its context; I see little reason for the "should" that you are positing. –  Neil Coffey Sep 1 '11 at 8:40
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I'm not talking in terms of the informality of this sentence, but rather on the grammaticality of the sentence. Thus, if considering the sentence grammatically, the subject and the verb has to agree in number. –  Thursagen Sep 1 '11 at 8:42
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"What's the tools" is, in short, ungrammatical. Acceptable as informal, but ungrammatical. "What's" is short for "What is". In the face of the grammar rule of "subject-verb agreement", how can one say "what's the tools" is grammatical? –  Thursagen Sep 1 '11 at 8:45
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Grammatical = following the accepted rules of grammar. What's the tools... does not follow the rules of English grammar. –  CJM Sep 1 '11 at 11:12

The sentence as it stands is grammatical. It is written in an informal register, but grammatical.

In a formal register, "What are..." would be used. But there's little reason to suppose that a question on an informal Internet forum "should" be written in a formal register: as far as I can see, the question as it stands is perfectly appropriate for its context.

I don't think people would commonly write "What're..." with a contraction, even though arguably that is a closer representation of the pronunciation than "What are" (similarly, people don't tend to write "Would've", but that's usually how it's pronounced).

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I would argue that it's "grammatically incorrect" only in a prescriptive sense; descriptively, it's grammatical. –  Neil Coffey Sep 1 '11 at 8:56
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How you actually define "grammatical" isn't trivial, but linguistis generally take it to mean something like: "generally judged to be well-formed by a native speaker", where "well-formed" isn't a value/preference/etiquette judgement, but simply a judgement as to whether the utterance is structurally within the bounds of one that a native speaker would produce. Now, there are problems with this, e.g. a sentence may be judged ungrammatical simply due to a failure of imagination (not being able to think of the context where a highly context-dependent utterance would be used)... –  Neil Coffey Sep 1 '11 at 9:26
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...but I think the question in hand is reasonably unambiguously on the side of "grammatical" from the point of view of this definition. Put another way: if you label it "ungrammatical", then you would end up labelling a huge number of utterances readily produced by native speakers in everyday usage as also being "ungrammatical", and it's not clear to me that such a definition is descriptively very useful. –  Neil Coffey Sep 1 '11 at 9:28
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That's a fair enough definition but IMHO the point of most questions on this site is to tease out the differences between formal and informal usage, and using the test of 'would be said by a native speaker' to define grammatical isn't always enough, innit? :) –  tinyd Sep 1 '11 at 9:41
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That's definitely one purpose and yes, it is impotrant for learners to gain a greater appreciation of register. That's why in my answer, for example, I explicitly explain that the difference between "What's the tools" and "What are the tools" is one of formality in this case. But just saying "it should be X" or "only X is grammatical", where X is specifically the variant used in formal usage or prescribed by a particular author doesn't really explain anything and could leave the reader more confused as to why we're saying it "should be X, not Y" when in reality what they see or hear is Y. –  Neil Coffey Sep 1 '11 at 9:49

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