I hear many native speakers do say sentences that do not strictly follow the subject-verb agreement grammar rules. (This is off-topic, but do they do it without realizing it?)

But in writing, this shouldn't be the case. So I'm wondering how to phrase the sentence in the title. I cannot specify the exact reason, but I can sense that there is a difference in how the two sentences sound:

  1. We need to pay attention to these two issues.
  2. It is these two issues that we need to pay attention to.

For me, the latter seems to emphasize the issues after mentioning the issues beforehand, whereas the former just sounds weaker.

According to the subject-verb agreement, the latter should be written in other form. But how?


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    Where do you see a lack of "subject-verb agreement"? – Hot Licks May 12 '15 at 12:17
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    @HotLicks Shouldn't 'It' refer to a singular? To me, 'it' and 'two issues' are mismatched. To make the sentence grammatically correct, I feel like I have to write 'They are these two issues that we need to pay attention to' instead. Thanks. – PurplePenguin May 12 '15 at 13:16
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    "It" refers to a matter of concern. That matter of concern is the two issues. – Hot Licks May 12 '15 at 13:19
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    This is a Cleft sentence, formed from We need to pay attention to these two issues by a regular rule that inserts a dummy it as the subject, an equative is as the verb, puts the object these two issues right after the fulcrum, and backgrounds the rest of the verb phrase into a restrictive relative that modifies the object. It is not the subject; it's a cog in a rather complicated restructuring. – John Lawler May 12 '15 at 13:47
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    @JohnLawler - I'll grant you that cleavage is important, but it seems like an entirely different issue. – Hot Licks May 12 '15 at 23:04

The second statement, "It is these two issues that we need to pay attention to." is yet another way of saying the same, but as you say, with an emphasis on 'these two issues'. When spoken, it sounds very effective.

Your enquiry on the subject-verb agreement, since it's a complex sentence, consisting of two clauses, here's what I think:

Clauses (2): it is these two issues, we need to pay attention to

Subjects (2): it, we

Verbs (2): to be, need (to pay - infinitive used after 'need')

It - is; we - need

Therefore, as for the question of whether the sentence violates any rules of grammar, I believe the answer is "no", although I'd like to re-phrase the same as follows:

These are the two issues, (that) we need to pay attention to.

  • Thanks. I came up with another question. How about the sentence: "It is these two issues that needs particular attention."? Does "needs" need to be replaced by "need"? – PurplePenguin May 18 '15 at 11:20
  • Yes, because 'two issues' (subject) agrees with 'need'. – Sankarane May 18 '15 at 12:09

Here's a reasonably good explanation of the "it-cleft" sentence, with some good examples. Most often this structure is used for emphasis:

"Joe stole the money." "No, it was Charley who stole the money."

I agree that "It is these two issues that we need to pay attention to" is a bit infelicitous, not only because of the seeming agreement problem but also because of the repeated two-to-to. I'd probably revise this sentence, as others have suggested.

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