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In my ell answer, version 32, I provided the following, problematic, wording (especially bold italic), and I need help to better understand this issue so I can fix my answer:1

The thing is the books. (Reduced form of Sentence 2.a)

Fundamentally, Sentence 2.a (the so-called "correct" answer), is grammatically defective. Recall there is another grammatical rule: the subject and subject's complement should match in number.

A clarification is needed here. I am not suggesting here, in this EL&U question, that there is any such singular grammatical rule as indicated in the quote above. The quote continues as follows:

The reduced sentence makes the disagreement between the subject's and complement's plurality obvious. What is one to do? Language is linear and we know "The thing is X" is better than "The thing are X", so we go with the former, which is the subject-verb agreement rule. But what is "the books" then? It must be thought of as a collective noun, even if it doesn't look or feel like one. Forcing something to be a collective noun is related to the idea of notional agreement.

Others noted that grammatically defective is too strongly worded. There is no such "grammatical rule" for subject/complement agreement. Please help me understand/improve upon my line of thought here. I'm stating that Sentence 2.1 presents a fundamental "conflict" or "error" (however one might define error) at some level (morphological, syntax, grammatical, semantic):

The thing is the books. (Or, "The thing is the objects.")

Based on the "obvious" morphosyntactic plurality conflict, the above sentence feels so wrong that I think many native speakers would think it "simply" grammatically incorrect. However, @F.E. gives counter examples:

And here are some more grammatical examples, where the number of subject and predicative complement don't agree: "They were a problem to us all", "That so-called work of art is simply four pieces of driftwood glued together" (CGEL, page 254-5). As CGEL says: "What is required is semantic compatibility, not syntactic agreement . . .". There are more examples on page 512: "The only thing we need now is some new curtains", "The major asset of the team is its world-class opening bowlers", "Our neighbors are a nuisance", "This gadget is five different tools in one".

I think all the examples given above can be explained as notional agreement.

Question 1: If we explain this phenomena in terms of notional vs syntactic agreement, where does "grammatically correct/incorrect" fit in?

Question 2: Can a simple sentence such as "The thing is the objects." be grammatically incorrect while more complex sentences such as "The thing is four pieces of driftwood glued together." be grammatically correct? (The answer, in my mind, must be no; this is my conundrum.)

Question 3: Would it be better to say that Sentence 2.a has a low level of (linguistic) grammaticality?

Question 4: How about a low level of gradient well-formedness and that it's semantically difficult to be (linguistically) acceptable?

Question 5: Do we simply draw a hard line and say "The thing is the objects." is 100% grammatically correct? I didn't particularly like this option based on intuitive notions of "grammatically correct".


1. Please help me and be kind; I'm trying to improve my understanding. I'm looking for cool, objective advice on how to look at this.

I numbered my questions so they can be easily referenced, if desired. My preference is the final answer would sufficiently answer all the questions, but of course that can be done explicitly or implicitly.

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    "It's us" is virtually universally accepted, so the 'rule' is a pseudorule at best. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 25 '14 at 16:52
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    The only agreement rule is that finite verbs must agree with their subject. Period. There is no such thing as “subject–complement” agreement in English, be it grammatical or notional. The problem is the horses is perfectly normal, standard, and correct in all possible ways, and therefore since your question is based on a false premise — that there is some sort of “problem” with that form — it can have no possible answer. – tchrist Jul 25 '14 at 17:18
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    I agree completely with @tchrist in this. This is a zombie rule, with no purpose and no evidence; just some ignorant pedagogue laying down the law. As Geoff Pullum (who actually did write a grammar of English) puts it, anybody can publish any bullshit they please about English grammar, and somebody will believe them if they act sufficiently authoritative. Because Anglophone education teaches native speakers nothing at all about English; in fact, it's negative education, because native speakers enter school speaking English already, but leave doubting their ability to do so. – John Lawler Jul 25 '14 at 17:37
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    It is slightly off-topic for me to say so, but reading this question made me smile. When I came here to ELU I had been thoroughly indoctrinated as a prescriptivist. I wasn't even aware of the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive schools of thought. Now, after a brief time, I find myself so in love with the descriptive paradigm, that I have zero interest in tackling a question like this today. It's an odd reason to smile, I know. But I'll take the opportunities as they arise. :) [Old me would have cringed at any sentence beginning with the word but.] – Lumberjack Jul 25 '14 at 17:38
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    @CoolHandLouis: Look, there's no "phenomenon" to "explain". Sometimes predicate noun phrases are plural and sometimes their subjects are plural, but no guarantees either way, and all four possibilities exist. What's special about this one? – John Lawler Jul 25 '14 at 18:17
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The thing is the books.

As the preponderance of comments suggests, an appropriate way to describe the grammar of this sentence, along with a host of others just like it, is: it is aces:

Exclamation that expresses something as being exceedingly good.
Urbandictionary.com

Divorcing the reduced construction from its larger context might give some native speakers pause, because the reduction eliminates contextual signals of the idiomatic usage:

thing

noun

6 (the thing) informal Used to introduce or emphasize an important point:

ODO

One might argue that the thing is the books is inappropriate for a formal lecture or paper, but one cannot argue that it is grammatically defective. The reduced expression is correct, and in its original context, it doesn't sound the least bit strange:

The only thing that I want you to hit right now is the books.

One might forgive an untrained writer for the erroneous proximity agreement, and even decipher the meaning of it in the full sentence:

*The only thing that I want you to hit right now ?are? the books.

But it is, in fact, erroneous proximity agreement between the verb and the predicative complement, as the reduced construction reveals:

*The thing ?are? the books.

It is one thing to forgive an error. It is quite another thing to teach an error, and the OP's rule may seem correct under cursory inspection, but it is spurious. Must the subject and subject complement match in number?

The only reason the thing is the books might sound strange is that our ears are more familiar with common predicative expressions of similar construction:

  • The girls are musicians. But not: The girls are musician.
  • The car is a clunker. But not: The car is [the] clunkers.
  • The actors are men. But not: The actors are man.

Even if the vast majority of predicative complements happens to match the number of the subject, there is no universal syntactical rule requiring it. Consider how simple it is to generate exceptions to this imaginary rule:

  • Taxes are the issue. Or The issue is taxes.
  • The prices are my concern. Or My concern is the prices.
  • The mosquitos are his problem. Or His problem is the mosquitos.
  • Her clothes are the point. Or The point is her clothes.
  • Flowers are today's subject. Or Today's subject is flowers.

In the five constructions above, mismatching the number of the subject and predicative complement works in both directions:

plural X are singular Y
AND
singular Y is plural X.

The reason is quite simple: regardless of which is the subject, the predicative syntax cooperates with the semantics of the singular noun to put the plural noun in a single collective bucket. An idiomatic usage of the thing exerts the same collectivizing influence on the books:

  • The books are the thing. Or The thing is the books.

The thing is singular, and the writer has chosen to equate the books with the thing. Apparently, the writer intends the reader to recognize the collective nature that turns the books into the thing. Should the reader respect the intentions of the writer, or cast pseudo-grammatical insults at the writer?


Prescriptive grammarians presume to keep our language "manageable" by giving arbitrary orders to native speakers. Deep in their intuitive understanding of how English really works, native speakers know better, but tragically, they cave in to the intimidation of seventy-five-cent obfuscations like morphosyntactic plurality conflict. [People who can say such big words with presumptive authority probably know more than us, right?]

Since there is no morphosyntactic plurality conflict in the sentence, what is it that bothers the prescriptive grammarian? It is the words, the intelligent arrangement of the words, and the intelligent speaker's refusal to fill the erroneous prescription. Please notice the previous sentence:

It is the words [that bother the prescriptive grammarian].

We might call it a dummy-subject, but it is singular, because the larger context invited it to match the interrogative what is it. The syntax of English requires the verb to match the singular subject with the singular form: is. After that, the predicative complement offers an intelligent answer to the question: the words bother the prescriptive grammarian. Again, notice how the larger context welcomes the plural words, because a long list of perfectly intelligent constructions irritates prescriptive grammarians.

The coup de grâce for the prescriptive grammarian's imaginary morphosyntactic plurality conflict is that the sentence answers the question with a compound complement in addition to a plural complement:

It is the words, the intelligent arrangement of the words, and the intelligent speaker's refusal to fill the erroneous prescription.

Semantics is about the meaning of words. Syntax is about the intelligent arrangement of words in sentences. When native speakers understand they are not sick, they just refuse to fill the erroneous prescription. The thing is the books is not at all grammatically defective, and the prescriptive grammarian exposes his own ignorance of English grammar by asserting the imaginary defect.


Question 1: If we explain this phenomena [sic] in terms of notional vs syntactic agreement, where does "grammatically correct/incorrect" fit in?

The premise of contradiction is flawed. From grammar.about.com, the definition of notional agreement is:

Agreement (or concord) of verbs with their subjects and of pronouns with their antecedent nouns on the basis of meaning rather than grammatical form. Also known as synesis.

The singular verb is agrees with the subject, so it is agreement, not "notional agreement." Even if there were a universal syntactical rule requiring the agreement of the subject and the predicative complement, it would be a discrete rule with no hard and fast bearing on the agreement between subject and verb. Regardless, the predicative syntax operates with the semantics of the singular subject to collectivize the plural predicative complement.


Question 2: Can a simple sentence such as "The thing is the objects." be grammatically incorrect while more complex sentences such as "The thing is four pieces of driftwood glued together." be grammatically correct? (The answer, in my mind, must be no; this is my conundrum.)

Although confused prescriptive grammarians might hope to salvage their sullied reputations, the simple sentence is just as correct as the more complex sentence, because in both situations, the predicative syntax operates with the semantics of the singular noun to collectivize the plural noun.

In the more complex sentence, the the semantics and syntax of the modifying phrase glued together reinforce the collectivization of the perfectly grammatical reduced expression: The thing is four pieces of driftwood. Please, notice that even this non-idiomatic use of The thing works quite well to break the imaginary rule about matching the number of subject and complement.


Question 3: Would it be better to say that Sentence 2.a has a low level of (linguistic) grammaticality?

Since the expression is perfectly grammatical, it might be better to say that the prescriptive grammarian making such a claim has a low level of insight into English grammar.


Question 4: How about a low level of gradient well-formedness and that it's semantically difficult to be (linguistically) acceptable?

Since the expression is well-formed and quite easy to understand, only a frustrated prescriptive grammarian refusing to abandon an imaginary rule would find it difficult to accept.

What is truly unacceptable is instructing students to break a real syntactic rule for the sake of applying a spurious rule. It would seem acceptable to lay out a descriptive rule for students: The subject complement normally agrees with its subject.


Question 5: Do we simply draw a hard line and say "The thing is the objects." is 100% grammatically correct? I didn't particularly like this option based on intuitive notions of "grammatically correct".

Intuition informed by error is erroneous intuition. Native English-speaking Everyman has drawn an intelligent intelligible line, and most intelligent people are delighted to talk and write on Everyman's side of the line. What is it that bothers the prescriptive grammarian?

It is semantics, syntax, and the intelligent speaker's refusal to fill an erroneous prescription.

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