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This came up when reviewing a written English exercise, and I realized that I don't entirely trust my intuition on the answer.

Which of the following is correct? Or are both valid? (Or is it strongly advisable to rewrite the sentence in some other way?)

"I see what appears to be a man and his son."

"I see what appear to be a man and his son."

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+1: Very good question. –  Daniel Sep 28 '11 at 0:59
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I think you're asking about the verb agreement with "aman and his son" not "what". –  Lisa Sep 28 '11 at 1:02
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2 Answers

Both are correct but infer different meanings. Context is important here.

The first describes a "man and his son" as a logical unit. Given the nature of the relationship it's not incorrect.

The second describes "a man" and "his son" in a literal, observational sense, as two distinct individuals.

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The former. You are describing a single sight, so the singular form is used. Correct forms are:

  • I see what appears to be a man.
  • I see what appears to be two men.
  • I see two things that appear to be the same man.
  • I see two things that appear to be men.
  • My problems appear to be difficult and frightening.
  • My problem appears to be difficult and frightening.
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People say and write what appear to be two often. It doesn't matter if the items are a single sight. "What appear to be a few tail vertebrae and fragments of a spike" is a common pattern; "what appears to be white cotton fiber paper and various inks" occurs, but usually "appears" is followed by one thing, like "appears to be a..." –  aedia λ Sep 28 '11 at 15:14
    
In almost all of those cases, I think "what appears to be two" is better. But I certainly wouldn't call those uses incorrect. –  David Schwartz Sep 28 '11 at 15:31
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