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What is the correct verb tense for the phrase "all you need is", when what follows is a plural?

  • All you need is paintbrushes and paint.
  • All you need are paintbrushes and paint.

Or is neither incorrect? Both forms sound funny to me.

Google shows an order of magnitude more hits for "all you need is two" than "all you need are two", but the latter still has ~500K hits, so it seems that both forms are in common use. (You can also examples of both usages in Google's "News" search.)


Consider a related example:

  • All is good.
  • All are good.

Both forms are correct, but have slightly different meanings/contexts. The first is correct if "all" refers to "everything" (singular); the second is correct if "all" refers to an implied concrete set of things, as in "all (the widgets) are good". This line of reasoning seems to imply the latter form is correct, since "paintbrushes" are concrete things. (And yet that seems to be the less popular form in common usage, judging by Google hits).

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Drew, Chenmunka, Robusto, Dan Bron Oct 21 '14 at 18:19

This question was marked as an exact duplicate of an existing question.

  • According to Google, all you need is friends has about 1,190,000,000 results. If that's not enough then tough - pluralising to all you need are friends gets only about 908,000,000 results. – FumbleFingers Oct 20 '14 at 1:10
  • @FumbleFingers No one seems to have a definitive answer for this. I tend to agree with the answer at the at link claiming that "are" is more correct, even where it might appear stilted. – McGarnagle Oct 20 '14 at 2:26
  • I think you make a problem for yourself by supposing one or the other is "correct". Over a billion Google hits for singular friends certainly can't be ignored - and what use is "correct" if most people ignore it? – FumbleFingers Oct 20 '14 at 4:02
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    @FumbleFingers- yes but someone got that closed as a duplicate of a question which has nothing to do with clefts at all!!!! And the question was never answered properly. There is a question here over what is the actual subject of the sentence ... Alcohol is all you need ... All you need is alcohol ... which of course then bleeds into what is agreeing with what ... – Araucaria Oct 21 '14 at 1:46
  • @Araucaria I agree 100%. Here is my attempt at answering, where I at least mention pseudo-clefts: “all they need _is_ some words” or “all they need _are_ some words”. Surprisingly, as best as I can tell, CalGEL apparently has little to say on the subject of number agreement in pseudo-clefts. – linguisticturn Jan 17 at 22:23
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I think the choice is driven by semantics. It depends on whether the object of the sentence is "seen" by the subject as a single concept or not.

  • All I need is cigarettes and alcohol.

        ...if you're thinking of their desired effects on your body, but...

  • All I need are cigarettes and alcohol.

        ...if you're making a shopping list.

  • All you need is paintbrushes and paint.

        ...to begin your artistic career, but...

  • All you need are paintbrushes and paint.

        ...because you already have an easel.

  • All you need is friends.

        ...some random collection of them, that is, but...

  • All you need are friends.

        ...each of them unique.

Finally,

  • All you need is love.

        ...never are, but some may think they need more. :)

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    Thanks, this seems like a reasonable explanation -- good enough for me. I would be curious to know what, if anything, newspaper style guides have to say on the subject, but I am certainly not willing to pay $26 to find out. :) – McGarnagle Oct 21 '14 at 1:27
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I believe the idiom is that 'all' takes the singular, but notional plurality has some merit.

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