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According to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Huddleston and Pullum (page 505), the following sentence is grammatical with either "is" or "are" as the verb of the main clause:

What are needed is/are managers with new ideas and the will to apply them.

QUESTION: Would any native speaker actually use "is" over "are" in this particular sentence?

Note: This is not a duplicate of this question because that question does not deal with the specific construction: What are new here is...

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    414,568,243 versus 408,354,715. – TRomano Oct 1 '15 at 13:08
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    Managers with new ideas are what is needed, but what is needed is managers with new ideas. Managers is plural, what is needed is singular and the subject guides the conjugation. – bib Oct 1 '15 at 13:08
  • @nickson104, Sorry but I'm not asking how YOU would write it. What I'm asking is whether you find the OP's sentence natural. – JK2 Oct 1 '15 at 13:17
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    Possible duplicate of "What is/are new here is/are ..." – FumbleFingers Oct 1 '15 at 13:39
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    Wouldn't it be what is needed? – Dog Lover Oct 5 '15 at 0:09
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+25

If you want to know what native speakers would do, ngrams is always a good start.

Conclusions:

  • what are needed are: very uncommon
  • what are needed is: no occurrences at all
  • what is needed is: very common
  • what is needed are: uncommon

So "what are needed" is very rarely used, and when it is used it is exclusively used with are rather than is.

This also matches with my personal experience and what feels right to me.

  • Buppose it's followed by a plural noun: e.g., What is needed is more minions? Then which construction is more common? – Peter Shor Oct 8 '15 at 11:06
  • @PeterShor - A good question. I can't answer what's more common (no idea how to research that), but I can let you know what I would use. I believe it hinges on the subject of the sentence, which isn't abundantly unclear in this phrase. I personally think the subject is hidden, and "what is needed is" means "the thing that is needed is", and hence I would tend to use "what is needed is" even if the following noun is plural. (cont) – AndyT Oct 8 '15 at 12:03
  • (cont) Taking your example, the phrase "what is needed is more minions" means, to me, "the thing that is needed is more minions". i.e. If you have the question "What is needed to increase factory production", and the answer is "More minions", then the phrase "what is needed is more minions" makes grammatical sense. I don't like the phrases "what are needed are more minions" or "what is needed are more minions "- I don't think either is equivalent to "more minions are needed"; because in the latter the subject of the sentence (minions) is plural, whereas in the former it's not. – AndyT Oct 8 '15 at 12:08
  • But according to CGEL, any of the four combinations in the OP's example sentence is possible, grammatical English. Do you think that they are simply wrong? – JK2 Oct 9 '15 at 0:46
  • @JK2 - Yes. "What are needed is" does not make grammatical sense to me, and given that there is no record of its usage at all in ngrams, I find it highly likely the CGEL is wrong. – AndyT Oct 9 '15 at 7:21
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I understand the OP to be asking whether one form is used by more speakers than the other.

Where I come from, most speakers (when talking casually) would not bother to have the verb agree with the plural complement that hasn't even arrived yet; they would use "is":

For Thursday's luncheon what's needed is maybe five or six of those very long tables and let's say fifty folding chairs.

Maybe we could use the NSA wiretapping database to document this. It is probably a treasure trove of linguistic data.

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    What if you started with "What are needed..." in your example? Oh, and that was my question, you know. – JK2 Oct 1 '15 at 14:13
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    @JK2 - to be fair, you made clear in a comment that you were interested in what sounded natural. To me, "What is needed... " is much more natural than "What are needed...", and this forces the "... is managers...". – JHCL Oct 1 '15 at 14:39
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    In my own idiolect, I do not start declarative sentences with "What are" as in "What are needed are more full-time jobs not more low-paying part-time jobs with erratic schedules that move employee shifts around at the company's whim so that the employee is prevented from finding another part-time job." I'd say "What's needed is more full-time jobs..." I think this is also true of the dialect I speak, when speakers are talking casually, not writing, or not speaking before an audience where they might (might) pay more attention to what they believe to be "proper grammar". – TRomano Oct 1 '15 at 14:45
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    @JHCL/Tim Romano: So are you saying that the phrase "What are needed" in and of itself, be it followed by "is" or "are", is not natural, albeit grammatical? – JK2 Oct 1 '15 at 14:45
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    I don't find it comfortable, no. I wouldn't normally use it regardless of how many constituent parts were required for the (singular) solution. – JHCL Oct 1 '15 at 14:49
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What are needed is/are managers with new ideas and the will to apply them.

This sounds a bit odd to me. I would use 'what we need is managers with new ideas and the will to apply them'.

If I planned this sentence beforehand I would use 'what are needed are managers...'. However, at the time of speaking, you usually don't have time to think about these minor rules. I think most natives would use:

'what's needed are managers with ...'

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Huddleston & Pullum are right in that the sentence is grammatical with either is or are as the verb of the main clause.

(Huddleston & Pullum are is right in that the sentence is grammatical with either "is" or "are" as the verb of the main clause.)

From what I've seen, the more common visualization of the context is with "needed" as the focus of the sentence, not "managers." "Managers" here is construed as a (collective) object in the singular. Thus the use of is.

However, when we look at it as a reference to individuals (the context is entirely possible – "What I need are some real go-getters to get this done in time.") – in which case are is the natural choice.

The sentence in question itself can be looked at in either way, so that both would make sense in the appropriate way. Even otherwise, the alternatives are both grammatical as it must be clear by now.

HTH.

  • Let me get this straight. In the grammatical "What are needed is managers with new ideas and the will to apply them", the speaker/writer started out thinking of "what" as something plural and started with "What are needed..." and then somehow changed their mind in the middle of the sentence and continued with "is" and decided to construe "managers" as a collective thing. Is that what you're saying? – JK2 Oct 1 '15 at 14:24
  • No. I am saying what I said in the post -- not sure if connotes otherwise. – Kris Oct 6 '15 at 13:40
  • You should use "can be looked at" in place of "can be look at". I am not downvoting it even though I firmly believe your answer deserves it. – user140086 Nov 2 '15 at 12:28

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