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Something seems off about the following sentence, but I can't put my finger on it:

Which countries is Nicaragua competing with?

Alternatives I considered:

With which countries is Nicaragua competing?

Who is Nicaragua competing with?

Open to suggestions, including the "the first sentence is fine", but if there's a better way to ask this question, I'd like to know what it is and why it is preferred (what rules apply, etc.)

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Is "Which countries is Nicaragua competing with?" grammatically correct?

Your question is very interesting and your doubt valid, but the sentence you quoted is grammatically correct.

Basic statement:

Nicaragua is competing with [certain] countries.

Here Nicaragua is the subject, 'compete' is the verb, 'with' is the preposition and 'countries' is the object.

Basic question form, which you suggested yourself:

With which countries is Nicaragua competing?

I think starting the sentence with "with which" reduces the chance of the reader automatically starting to think of 'countries' as the subject of the sentence.

Another way of writing the same:

Which countries is Nicaragua competing with?

This is your quoted sentence that 'sounds odd' because of the "which countries is" sequence. The earlier sentence was rearranged to place the object "countries" prominently at the front of the sentence.

This type of rearrangement is called 'fronting' as noted by @Janus Bahs Jacquet in comments.

‘Nicaragua’ is the subject of the verb; ‘[which] countries’ is the (fronted) object of the preposition ‘with’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 17 '13 at 22:21

So what exactly is 'fronting'?

In English grammar, fronting refers to any construction in which a word group that customarily follows the verb is placed at the beginning of a sentence. Also called front-focus or preposing. Fronting is a type of focus strategy often used to enhance cohesion and provide emphasis.

Source: https://www.thoughtco.com/fronting-in-grammar-1690875

If it had been 'country' instead of 'countries' the sentence would have sounded very natural and it would not even have been noticed:

Which country is Nicaragua competing with?

In short it was the unintentionally incongruous juxtaposition of 'countries' with 'is' (rather than the expected plural 'are') that made the sentence sound odd, as already pointed out by @J.R. in comments.

Note that there can be another version of the sentence (also pointed out in the answer of @Ahmed Masud) where 'countries' is actually the subject and "countries are" is the correct construction:

Which countries are competing with Nicaragua?

So if you feel the sentence you quoted might better be rewritten then 2 good ways to rearrange it are

With which countries is Nicaragua competing?

Which countries are competing with Nicaragua?

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Sentences one and two are fine; sentence three is not correct grammatically, but 90+ percent of people would not think it wrong. Uptight types and grammar Nazis would prefer the following:

"With whom is Nicaragua competing?"

I know, sentence one sounds a bit funny to my ears, too, but it sounds that way probably because we think the plural countries should be linked to a plural verb. That is not the case, however. Simply recasting the sentence reveals the correct verb to be the singular is.

Countries is the object of the prepositional phrase, "with which countries"; is is the predicate of Nicaragua (one country, hence a singular verb). Here's another variation in the form of a statement:

"Nicaragua is competing with these countries: El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and Mexico."

  • I slightly object to "anal retentive" part of the answer. I'd -1 but I think you can fix that ... – Ahmed Masud Aug 17 '13 at 20:18
  • It is a bit Freudian, but if you object strenuously to my use of it, I'll be glad to bowdlerize it! – rhetorician Aug 17 '13 at 20:27
  • hehe i said i only slightly objected ;) – Ahmed Masud Aug 17 '13 at 20:41
  • to be precise I meant that you shouldn't capitalize the "A" heheh – Ahmed Masud Aug 17 '13 at 20:56
  • @AhmedMasud: No problem. Don – rhetorician Aug 17 '13 at 21:18
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It sounds weird to your ear because the subject of the verb to be (is) in the interrogative

Which [countries is] Nicaragua competing with?

Should be the word countries not Nicaragua which is the predicate.

The above could be rephrased as:

Which countries are competing with Nicaragua?

However if you wish to emphasize Nicaragua then you can use your own construction:

With which countries [is Nicaragua] competing?

The compound phrase "which countries" acts as a whom because of the with.

An aside on who vs. whom:

As for the who / vs. whom, if you expect the answer to contain "him, her or them" then you should use whom. If you expect the answer to contain "he, she or they" then you should use who.

The answer could be, for example, be:

Nicaragua is competing with them. (correct)

But not,

Nicaragua is competing with they. (incorrect)

An easy way to remember the difference is to remember that m of himm of whom

  • 1
    I’m not quite following your first few paragraphs—it sounds to me as if you’re saying that in the sentence, “Which countries is Nicaragua competing with”, the subject of ‘is’ is ‘[which] countries’? If so, that is not correct. ‘Nicaragua’ is the subject of the verb; ‘[which] countries’ is the (fronted) object of the preposition ‘with’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 17 '13 at 22:21

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