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Is the phrase

what are wrong with XY and ZZ

correct English? I stumbled upon it in a question on movies.SE: What are wrong with the bleach and the fish in the Machinist?, and instantly thought "That has to be an error!"

Not being a native speaker, I thought before correcting it, it'd be better to Google it first (you never know) and it actually returned over 13 million results.

I'm stumped, is this actually correct? Or just a common mistake?

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I edited your question to include the whole title within it, from which the phrase is (I think) obviously correct. Verb "are" is used with plural bleach and fish; what may be singular or plural. –  jwpat7 Apr 16 '12 at 19:53
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from which the phrase is (I think) obviously correct. Is it? From my logic the verb "is" is relating to the subject "what", which is singular. How can it be plural? Something are wrong with XYZ sounds really wrong to me. –  atticae Apr 16 '12 at 19:57
    
"the bleacn and the fish" is the object of "with", not the subject of "are". So this sentence is (it seems to me) incorrect. You could say: "What are the things wrong with ..." –  GEdgar Apr 16 '12 at 20:24
    
'What' in itself is neither singular nor plural; it does not change. 'Something are wrong' is odd because something -some thing -is singular. And your formulation is subtly different from the example : XYZ would normally be assumed to be one thing (which does indeed take a singular verb), whereas the bleach and the fish are (see what I mean?) two different things. –  TimLymington Apr 16 '12 at 20:25
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@Rory Alsop: No disrespect, but I rejected your edit to the title. In the circumstances, it seems reasonable/amusing to me for OP to use the questionable "what are" there as well. –  FumbleFingers Apr 16 '12 at 20:35

3 Answers 3

up vote 18 down vote accepted

"What is wrong with XYZ?" is valid regardless of whether XYZ is one thing or many, and whether the questioner expects an answer detailing one fault or many.

If the questioner wanted to explicitly indicate that he expects an answer listing multiple faults, he'd have to say something like "What things are wrong with XYZ?".

"What are wrong with XYZ?" is never grammatically valid. Nor is it a common mistake — I don't recall seeing it before now, and Google Books records only 14 instances of "what are wrong with", compared to millions of "what is wrong with".

As regards exactly why the non-standard usage is unacceptable, rather than just uncommon, what in this construction is a non-count pronoun. Non-count nouns require the singular verb form.

Edit: Kudos to JLG for highlighting the importance of the word wrong in this construction. The interrogative pronoun what attaches to wrong — a non-count abstract noun which transfers its non-count status to what. That doesn't happen with, for example, "What are those things?".

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I agree that it's not correct to say "what are wrong with." See this NGram: books.google.com/ngrams/… –  JLG Apr 16 '12 at 21:02
    
Why would you think that 'what' is non-count because of this example? 'What' doesn't get filled in by XYZ. 'What' is a kind of wrong not a kind of XYZ. 'What -are- wrongs made by XYZ?' is grammatical because the verb agrees with 'wrongs'. –  Mitch Apr 16 '12 at 21:50
    
@Mitch: I don't follow you. 'What are wrongs made by XYZ?' sounds like a bad translation. I stand by my assertion that "what" in this usage is a "non-count pronoun". Thus, since non-count nouns always take the singular verb form, OP's version is grammatically incorrect. If you think "What are wrong with X [Y and Z]" can ever be valid then please post an answer defending it, and see if you can get anyone else to agree - I certainly won't. –  FumbleFingers Apr 16 '12 at 22:02
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@FumbleFingers: I don't think "what are wrong with X,Y,and Z" is correct at all. But I disagreed with your analysis. My sentence, on reflection, is both bad and doesn't point to the right analysis either. Whatever is going on, the phrase 'with XYZ' is disposable and so the number of XYZ cannot have anything to do with the number on the verb. –  Mitch Apr 17 '12 at 1:32
    
@Mitch: Isn't "whatever is going on" the fact that the word wrong is thrown in there? "What is wrong..." is correct; "What are wrong..." is incorrect. It doesn't matter whether the object of the preposition "with" is plural or singular. –  JLG Apr 17 '12 at 2:09

As a pronoun, what derives its number from the noun it replaces. In our sentence ('What is/are wrong with X, Y and Z?') it is not clear whether what replaces thing or things (or any number of other singular/plural nouns).

I would offer that is provides a more natural construction and is thus to be preferred: 'What is wrong with X, Y and Z?'

In my brief research, I was not able to find a conclusive answer based on grammaticality, though I am somewhat swayed by the comments by @JLG (about the non-count status of wrong).

Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage says this:

singular what.

A problem of singular or plural verb agreement arises when what is singular but looks forward to a plural noun or pronoun later in the sentence: What we need is/are clear guidelines. Fowler had a useful rule that if the sentence begins in the singular (i.e. if the initial what is singular), the continuation should also be singular; so the example just given would be expressed in the form What we need is clear guidelines. In current use this rule is often respected, as the following examples show:

"What really worries me is the numbers—Nina Bawden, 1987"

"What bothered him was drivers who switched lanes without signalling—New Yorker, 1989."

In these cases, it is arguable that a noun phrase such as the circumstance of or the fact of should be understood after the main verb; it is not the numbers or the drivers as such that cause the worry in the first example or the bother in the second, but the fact of what they represented or were doing. There are, however, counter examples to be found:

"What concerns me are the number of construction projects that are delayed—York Press, 2004 [OEC]."

plural what.

A different situation arises when what is plural: I have few books, and what there are do not help me. In this sentence, what refers back to books, and so its plural status is clear. When what refers forward, the choice is less obvious: We seem to have abandoned what seem/seems to us to be the most valuable parts of our Constitution. Fowler (whose example this is) had another useful rule in these cases: if what can be resolved into the—s that, with—s standing for a plural noun that comes later in the sentence, the construction should be plural. In the example just given, what…can be resolved into the parts of our Constitution that…, and the continuation should therefore be seem (plural), not seems. If the relative clause introduced by what comes at the head of the sentence, the same rule can be followed if what can be resolved into that which: What [= that which] is required is faith and confidence, and willingness to work. This principle is much less secure, however, since what in the example given (Fowler's again) can as easily be resolved as the things which (plural): What [= the things which] are required are faith and confidence, and willingness to work. Here there is clearly a choice, and naturalness and rhythm will often be decisive; the important point is that the choice between singular and plural should be consistent throughout the sentence, and that a singular what should not be followed by a plural continuation: ☒ What is required are faith and confidence, and willingness to work.

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"What" can be either singular or plural. "is/are" is a linking verb, so the number of the things on either side -- the subject and the predicate nominative -- should match, and then this number should match the verb.

So, for example, we say, "What IS the name of your friend?" because "name" is singular, so "what" is being used as a singular, so the verb should be singular. But we say, "What ARE the names of your friends?" because "names" is plural, etc.

In this case we have a predicate adjective rather than a predicate nominative. I think in such cases the subject "what" is always considered singular. I'm trying to think of exceptions. So in "What is/are wrong with X, Y, and Z", we should use "is". I guess you are being thrown off by the prepositional phrase "with X, Y, and Z". But such a phrase does not affect the number of the subject. A simple rule of thumb is, when trying to determine things about the subject and verb, just ignore any "extra detail" phrases.

If that doesn't make sense to your intuition, consider this sentence, "Who is/are the policeman who arrested Smith and Jones?" Clearly it should be "is", because "policeman" is singular -- we are asking for one policeman. The fact that "Smith and Jones" are two people is irrelevant. They're not the "who" here: "the policeman" is.

In the same way, the thing you are asking about in your sentence is "wrong". The fact that it is "with X, Y, and Z" has nothing to do with the number of the subject.

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