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Which sentence is more grammatically correct?

He is being tried on what look like trumped-up charges.
He is being tried on what looks like trumped-up charges.

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  • Presumably the first one, given charges. I'd imagine you would hear both a lot in common speech, though. Commented May 16, 2013 at 12:03
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    Both are correct. In the first, look refers to the individual charges, while in the second, looks refers to the issue of charges as singular. There is no grammatical error; the difference is in semantics.
    – Kris
    Commented May 16, 2013 at 12:38

1 Answer 1

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This is an example of a free relative clause. The relative pronoun can be singular or plural, depending on the context.

In a bound relative clause, the relative pronoun has the same grammatical number as its antecedent, but a free relative clause has no antecedent. When you're not sure which number to use for a free clause, you can often deduce it by comparing an equivalent independent clause with a demonstrative subject. For example:

These look like trumped-up charges.
This looks like trumped-up charges.

Both of these sentences are grammatical, with slightly different meanings. In the first sentence, the subject refers to the charges; in the second, it refers to the situation:

This looks like [a case of] trumped-up charges.

Many writers will prefer the first example because the grammatical number obviously agrees throughout, but both are correct. Likewise, both of your examples are correct, although many writers will prefer the first because of the consistent number:

He is being tried on what look like trumped-up charges.
He is being tried on what looks like trumped-up charges.

[edit EA; 2023] There are few hits (about 50 each) in Google searches for either "He is being tried on what look like trumped-up charges" or "He is being tried on what looks like trumped-up charges". Some of these are other requests for elucidation. The opinions given are in line with the above (both grammatical; proximity (look ... charges) agreement sounds better).

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  • Hello, Bradd. This has just resurfaced. Have you reasonable references supporting the claims made, that you could kindly add? Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 14:21
  • @EdwinAshworth What are you looking for support for? The primary claim I made is that this is not a matter of grammatical correctness (i.e. numerical agreement) because the relative pronoun what has no antecedent to agree with, and I linked a source that names and defines the specific grammatical structure. Everything else is subjective stylistic advice, with an explanation for why some folks prefer one over the other, even though neither is more "correct." Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 14:01
  • Also, it's been ten years. I have no idea whether or how my source has changed in that time. It may be more or less on point than it was when I wrote this. I stand by what I wrote ten years ago, but I don't see much value in re-researching old work because an algorithm resurfaced it. Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 14:06
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    I guess the main problem is that I haven't been a regular here in a long time, so I don't know what the standards are, and so I have little chance of getting it right without putting in a ton of work, including re-learning the culture. I've already spent way too much time on this. Please feel free to adopt the answer yourself. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 20:31
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    @EdwinAshworth Thank you! Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 14:35

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