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Is the following sentence correct?

Such splendid isolation is the privilege of the giants of a discipline, and giants in the world of scholarship is definitely what the authors of this volume are.

I found it disconcerting, but I do not feel confident evaluating its correctness. The question is particularly interesting because it appears in the description of a book related to linguistics! http://www.amazon.com/Atlas-North-American-English-Phonetics/dp/3110167468/

There seem to be a number of issues here. The clause "what the authors of this volume are" rather than a simpler noun phrase, the atypical arrangement of the sentence for emphasis (as in "The winner is you." instead of "You are the winner."), etc.

The above issues make it far trickier than "The authors of this volume are definitely giants in their discipline."

PS - In addition to the question itself, please feel free to correct/edit any of the terms I describe clumsily (the title, the parenthetical statement in the first paragraph, etc).

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It sounds perfectly fine to me. I like milk, and milk is what this is. – coleopterist Aug 31 '12 at 16:02
Ah, but your noun has a different count than the example. Your version works, but make it reflect the example more — "I like dairy products, and dairy products is what these are" — not so much. – heathenJesus Aug 31 '12 at 16:19
sorry for the slow response all, im not too frequent here but this just jumped out at me and i had to ask. i appreciate all the thoughts! – jon_darkstar Sep 20 '12 at 20:57
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Let's strip the non-essential elements from your construction (and add a bit of context to make it seem natural):

Dwarves? What they are is giants, not dwarves

Clever? What I am is mad, not clever.

(Notice that I have removed the inversion from your sentence, because it obscures the construction even more, while being non-essential.) This sounds correct to me, just as your example —except that the part before "is what" is pushed back a bit too far to my taste in your example, delaying the suspension a bit too long, which makes it a slightly awkward, but acceptable.

What seems to happen here is that a what subordinate clause acts as a singular subject of the third person, even if it refers to several objects semantically, and even if the subject complement (giants) is plural or of the first person. This is probably because our subconscious treats it as an abstract unit, which is by default a third person singular.

The same singular third person seems to be applied to which when it refers not to a specific word, but to a sentence or thought:

Achilles dragged Hector's body around the battlefield attached to his chariot. The Trojans were perplexed and enraged, which is just what Achilles wanted, or so it seemed.

You can see the third person singular being used to refer to the entire main clause (or to the thought expressed in it).

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On what rule are you basing your comment "a what subordinate clause acts as a singular subject of the third person, even if it refers to several objects semantically, and even if the subject complement (giants) is plural or of the first person"? I was under the impression that nominal relatives were subject to number contrast. I agree that it is easy to treat it as uniformly singular, and that it seems a subconscious function to do so, but I would be interested in the specific rule upon which you base this assertion. – heathenJesus Aug 31 '12 at 16:50
But would you say "what we have here are giants" or "what we have here is giants"? I'd lean towards "are" (although "is" doesn't sound bad). think the reason that people use "is" in sentences like yours is to avoid the repeated use of "are". – Peter Shor Aug 31 '12 at 17:10
The rules governing acceptability of verb inflexions used with expressions linking dummy or notional subjects to objects are hazy. The classic 'It's us' shows that illogical concord can be quite acceptable. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 31 '12 at 17:26
@heathenJesus: I said "it seems", based on the given example sentence—I know of no rule. Relative pronouns normally have numeral agreement within their relative clauses, but apparently it doesn't always carry over to the relative clause as a constituent of the main clause. But I must revise my answer based on Peter's suggestion above. – Cerberus Aug 31 '12 at 19:42
@PeterShor: Ouch, good one. I agree, I would prefer "are" there. +1. So apparently the number of the subject of the "what" clause can carry over to the clause itself. How about this: normally it can go either way, with a preference for "are/am/etc.", except when this would lead to repeating the exact same verb form from the relative clause, which would often be the case. – Cerberus Aug 31 '12 at 19:45

The main issue you're referring to is a case of inversion.

The first independent clause ends with the thought/ phrase "giants of a discipline," so for me it's quite natural to pick up from that and start the next independent clause with it:

...and giants in the world of scholarship is definitely what the authors of this volume are."

Also, I don't think the noun clause "what the authors of this volume are" can be replaced with another "simpler noun phrase" as it is a by-product of the inversion:

You're an angel. That's what you are.

If we simplify or "reinvert" it, we can't capture the same emphasis being expressed by the particular structure of the original.

P.S. I'm not sure what you meant by the "form of the copulative verb" in the title. Is it the subject and verb agreement between "giants in the world of..." and "is"? But I see nothing wrong with how all the "be" verbs are used in the quote.


It seems you've completely moved the focus of your question by editing the title. But my answer still holds.

In the inverted structure, the subject of the sentence is the noun clause "what the authors of this volume are." And a noun clause as a subject takes a singular verb.


How many fish there are doesn't matter.

What kind they are is important.

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Concerning your update: Yes, you certainly zeroed in on that. Appropriate that you picked fish in your example, because apparently the is/are issue was a red herring distracting me from the real problems. – jon_darkstar Sep 20 '12 at 20:59

I'm going to have to say no. No matter how you slice it, that second clause just doesn't work. Ignoring the fact that it's particularly awkward, the grammar just doesn't work. "Giants is what the authors are". Strip it down, it becomes clearer.

I feel like there is a sense of implied grouping here — "A group of giants is what the authors are." But that is not what is written, and the implication is not enough to positively alter the grammar of this sentence.

Update — Re: The problem is... It's classic subject/verb disagreement. While Cerberus' comment is persuasive, relative pronouns are not always singular, but rather depend on the antecedent for count. Because the "what" in this case refers to "authors", "is" is incorrect. Here's a nice explanation: leo.stcloudstate.edu/grammar/subverag.html See the part about relative pronouns.

Another update — Cool Elf has the right of this one, I was mistaken. The "is" in this case links "what the authors are" as a unit with "giants in their field", not "authors" and "giants".

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In what way does that second clause just not work? What is wrong with the grammar? – Roaring Fish Aug 31 '12 at 15:59
Made a comment, then decided to add it to my primary answer. – heathenJesus Aug 31 '12 at 16:41
Are refers to the authors. Is refers to being giant. What is not a verb. – Roaring Fish Aug 31 '12 at 16:46
You are correct, what is a nominal relative clause, a fused or compound form of "that which", in this particular case. "Giants is that which the authors are" — I still believe this to be incorrect. – heathenJesus Aug 31 '12 at 16:54
"Fixing pipes is what the plumbers are doing" Is that correct, or would you prefer "Fixing pipes are what the plumbers are doing"? Being giants is a state, and there is only one of it. The is is correct. – Roaring Fish Aug 31 '12 at 17:01

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