If somebody asks a question in the singular, how do we give a plural answer? Here's an example, with three different possible ways to answer. (The part of the answer that has the plural sense is marked in bold):

Q: What's the most important thing to you?

A1: The most important thing to me is my friends.

A2: The most important thing to me are my friends.

A3: The most important things to me are my friends.

I am a native speaker of British English. I prefer A1. An American told me she preferred A2. I suspect that a formal prescriptivist would recommend A3.

Is there any rhyme or reason to this? What should I recommend to a student learning English?

  • Personally, I'd answer "The most important thing to me? My friends." and avoid the issue. – Bobson Nov 12 '13 at 17:44
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    @Bobson That's fine when you're free to write whatever you want. But not when you're a learner of English and have to answer a badly posed question in a written test. – Pitarou Nov 12 '13 at 23:09
  • Very true. That's why I made it a comment, not an answer. – Bobson Nov 13 '13 at 14:31
  • I think "my" is wrong and evicting "my" would make the answer better sounding and more logical in A1 , I agree with A2(and that is main difference between the usage of both the sentences)...and A3 is out of place... – Argot Jan 28 '14 at 14:37

These are cleft sentences where there is a separation the grammatical and the logical subject, and both A1 and A2 make sense.

In A1 the verb agrees with the grammatical subject: The most important thing to me (singular).

In A2 the verb agrees with the logical subject: my friends (plural).

The odd one out is A3

"The most important thing to me" as in A1 and A2 implies a single item or a single set of items.

"The most important things to me" on the other hand implies a list of (sets of) items, but "my fiends" is not a list.

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To a student who is learning English and is a true beginner or at elementary level, I would say that they (plural!) will hear all three forms, especially in speech. That A1 is probably what they should aim for, because the verb, be, agrees with the singular subject "the most important thing". However, they should be aware that A2:

the most important thing to me are my friends

is acceptable and many native speakers will in fact say this without blinking an eye.

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  • Thanks. I don't know why someone downvoted your answer. – Pitarou Nov 12 '13 at 23:02
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    @Pitarou 3 downvotes actually and counting (click on the number and you see the upvotes and downvotes). If you compare my answer with Mario Elocio's we're saying the same thing, though his is more technically worded. – Mari-Lou A Nov 13 '13 at 8:27
  • That's disappointing. Do you think somebody's treating this as a zero-sum game? I selected Mario Elocio's as the selected answer, because he makes the distinction between the grammatical and the logical subject. – Pitarou Nov 13 '13 at 23:10
  • @Pitarou Who knows? I've practically given up flagging these instances. Elocio's answer is worthy, I preferred answering your last question. – Mari-Lou A Nov 13 '13 at 23:16

If you want to answer a singular question with a plural answer, most people will understand "your friends" as a set of something. But, to someone learning English, A1 might be confusing, and so they should use A3 until they become fluent. A2 is blatantly wrong.

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    A2 most certainly is not “blatantly wrong”. It is simply inverted, which will often make it sound odd. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 12 '13 at 9:29
  • Actually, it is wrong because the subject and verb do not agree. "Thing is", not "thing are". "Things are," not "things is." – Jonathan Spirit Nov 12 '13 at 22:35
  • Evidence, please? – Pitarou Nov 12 '13 at 23:01
  • @JonathanSpirit, as I said, it is inverted. The subject and the predicative have switched place. The subject is ‘my friends’ in A2, not ‘thing’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 12 '13 at 23:24
  • @Pitarou I don't understand your question. In a sentence, the subject and verb agree. – Jonathan Spirit Nov 12 '13 at 23:35

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