Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I was just trying to formulate a sentence in an email, and wanted to reference a third person, inquiring as to which of something that person was referring in the forwarded mail message.

Is it:

"About which things is he talking?"

or

"About which things are he talking?"

Just FYI I originally had the "about" at the end. Not grammatically correct but no one talks like that anyway.

There seem to be conflicting rules here, but I don't know which one applies. Normally, with sentences like "What is he doing?" the "is" is part of "is talking," and similarly the second person "are talking." This would indicate that the first version is correct. But you could also argue that the helper verb applies to "things", and so should be "are" because "things" is plural.

I started to think that "is he" is correct, because if you turn the sentence around to answer it, you get "He is talking about those things" and not "he are talking". But still, there are other sentences like "Which gifts is he bringing to the party?" Now that just feels wrong, saying "gifts is" like that. But is it correct?

share|improve this question
    
The verb should pertain to "he" (since the answer would go like "he is talking about..."); thus, use the singular verb, "is". –  user730 Dec 13 '10 at 15:03
2  
You could not "also argue that the helper verb applies to 'things', and so should be 'are' because 'things' is plural". That's because the verb does not apply to "things". –  RegDwigнt Dec 13 '10 at 15:04
    
i.e., "things" is not the subject, but "he", for that example. –  user730 Dec 13 '10 at 15:07
1  
BTW, there's nothing wrong with putting "about" at the end! –  ShreevatsaR Dec 13 '10 at 16:27
    
"What were you talking about?" –  user730 Dec 13 '10 at 16:45
add comment

2 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

As, he is the subject of the sentence here, you need to match the singular, so the correct construction uses is.

About which things is he talking?

Similarly, your other example also needs is for the same reason.

Which gifts is he bringing to the party?

Things and gifts are the objects of these verbs and not the subjects so don't let them fool you. Imagine replacing them with what, for example and see how it sounds.

What is he bringing to the party?

vs.

What are he bringing to the party?

share|improve this answer
    
Thanks for clarifying. English is messed up, even when it's correct. –  Tesserex Dec 13 '10 at 15:15
3  
English is not messed up. This is fairly logical and you'll find it in other European languages as well. –  siride Dec 14 '10 at 15:51
add comment

The subject of both sentences —the person doing the talking or bringing— is he, which requires the singular "is". (As RegDwight noted, you could not "also argue that the helper verb applies to 'things'". Well, ok, you could argue it, but you'd be wrong.)

What things is he talking about?
Which gifts is he bringing to the party?

Note that it is not only perfectly grammatical to put about at the end, but it also flows better, so lots of people do indeed "talk that way".

share|improve this answer
    
I meant nobody says "about which is he talking" in casual conversation. Everyone does say "which is he talking about." I guess I was a bit confusing there. –  Tesserex Dec 13 '10 at 15:26
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.