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I listen to a podcast that I like, but every episodes ends with

Our listeners are what make [podcast name] possible.

which makes me cringe a little each time I hear it. Is it just me, or is the sentence wrong? And if so, what is the correct form - should both verbs be singular? And is there a difference between UK and US usage? (The podcast is based in the USA).

I found a similar question, but it does not apply exactly (and the one it links to only discusses cases where the sentence stars with a time interval).

Thank you.

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    IMO, you are right. What makes our podcast possible? Our listeners. Our listeners is what makes our podcast possible. – Ghaith Alrestom Jan 19 '16 at 8:12
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    "A group/collection of our listeners" is what makes our podcast possible. – user140086 Jan 19 '16 at 8:51
  • I think the following questions are relevant; I'm currently reading the answers there: Can “what” be plural?, Singular or plural verb after “what” It seems clear that the singular ("makes") would be valid here; like you, I'm not sure about "make." – sumelic Jan 19 '16 at 14:02
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    "Our listeners" is definitely plural and would always use "are". – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 19 '16 at 14:45
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"Our listeners are what make our podcast possible" is grammatical. (But it took a little while for me to figure that out; thank you to everyone else who left comments and answers!) Like you, I felt uncomfortable with it after you brought it up, and I'll discuss the reasons for that below, but they are based on semantics rather than purely on the grammatical structure.

As a subject, "our listeners" triggers plural agreement on the corresponding verb in all varieties of English that I know of. In this sentence, that verb is "are." It isn't anything like a collective noun: collective nouns, such as "collection" or "group," are singular in form (morphology) but plural in meaning. But "listeners" is clearly plural in form, as it has the plural suffix -s. As you said, the answers to the question about 'Is it “5–6 weeks are a lot of time” or “5–6 weeks is a lot of time”?' only say it is possible to use singular verbs with nominally-plural subjects that are "quantities or measurements" (usually "of time, money, distance, weight"). There is no measurement involved in the noun phrase "our listeners," so I don't think it's natural to use a singular verb with it.

So that's what I'd say about the first verb in the sentence. But the verb "make/makes" is part of a later, distinct relative clause whose subject is the word "what." So to figure out which to use between "make" and "makes," we need to determine whether "what" is singular or plural here.

This is a tricky question, since relative pronouns always have one form, but can take different types of agreement depending on the situation. A relevant situation that I have just thought of is the transparency of the relative pronoun "who" to person agreement, discussed in the following post: "You who is" OR "you who are". I think that I would not use person agreement in sentences like "Our listeners are what make [podcast name] possible." Here's what I mean. To simplify matters, assume we're talking to a single person, "Sally." I would say

Sally, you are what makes [podcast name] possible.

rather than

Sally, you are what make [podcast name] possible.

In fact, a Google Ngram search turns up no examples of the structure "you are what make"; "you are what makes" is attested, although rarely, and only consistently after the 1980s.

On the other hand, as FumbleFingers has discussed, it is true that "these are what make" is more frequent in the Google corpus than "these are what makes," and also, "they are what make" is more frequent than "they are what makes."

enter image description here

My interpretation of this is that in constructions like this with "what," the verb after "what" does not have to agree with the subject of the preceding clause.

However, it evidently can inflect for plurality. It does seem this is an exception to the default situation where "what" triggers singular agreement on a following verb. The English Forums explanation that FumbleFingers linked to in a comment gives examples where a plural verb can/must be used if the complement includes a plural noun phrase (such as "What they desperately want are clothes and shelter"), but the relevant clause in the sentence you're asking about ("what make/makes [podcast name] possible") doesn't have a plural noun phrase complement. FumbleFingers' grammarphobia link also doesn't seem to cover sentences of this exact type. But perhaps it could simply be considered the inversion of "What make [podcast name] possible are our viewers," which is a sentence whose form is discussed (and confirmed to be grammatical) in the grammarphobia article. However, it doesn't seem safe to assume that we can invert the sentence and leave the verb the same.

This question seems to indicate that if a relative pronoun such as "what" starts a "free relative clause," the word "what" does not have to agree in plurality with the preceding noun "listeners." From what I can tell, it is a free relative clause in your sentence (I'm not even sure if bound relative clauses with "what" are possible in standard English; they usually use other relative pronouns such as "which" or "who"). This would mean that it's grammatically possible to treat "what" as either singular or plural; it appears that speakers usually do treat "what" as plural in this grammatical context (judging from the NGram that Fumblefingers has provided).

However, even if a plural verb is more commonly chosen, it does seem to be possible for "what" to be taken as singular here and get singular verb agreement. FumbleFinger's ngram link indicates that a notable minority of speakers take this option in the Google Books corpus, and I think the evident opacity of the structure in modern usage to personal agreement (as shown in sentences using the pronoun "you") provides some analogical support to the idea that it can be opaque to number agreement as well. When I first read your post, my reaction was that I would say "Our listeners are what makes our podcast possible."

Here are some other example sentences where I would use a singular verb rather than agreeing with the plural subject of the main clause:

  • They are what is wrong with this place.
  • They are all that makes my life worth living.

Different speakers may have different intuitions about this, however.

Maybe a good way to think of it is this: just as you could say "our viewers are the thing that makes our podcast great," you could also say "our viewers are the things that make our podcast great." Both are grammatically correct, although they may have slightly different shades of meaning. And since "what" can be plural or singular, it can mean either "the thing that" or "the things that."

An interesting point besides this: despite the fact that I would use a singular "makes" in the OP's sentence, I agree that only plural "make" is appropriate in a sentence like

Blue grass pastures, fields of clover; These are what make Mansfield grow.

"What Makes Mansfield Grow," from Around Mansfield by the Mansfield Historical Society

This is because I would not be comfortable saying "Blue grass pastures, fields of clover; These are the thing that makes Mansfield grow." Semantically, these are not one thing, or even one type of thing.

  • Thank you, this makes sense. For me, I see the what as a shorthand for the thing that, so I hear Our listeners are the thing that makes our podcast possible. .. no question about makes here. But I do not know whether that argument holds water. – Michal Kaut Jan 19 '16 at 14:37
  • There are countless examples of sentences on the web that use plural "what" in the construction "make X possible". I don't find these sentences ungrammatical: "Proteins are what make life possible." "They are what make this possible." "stories are what make life possible". – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 19 '16 at 14:42
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    @sumelic Well, if they're grammatical, then it undermines your case for strictly using "makes". – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 19 '16 at 14:46
  • Well, they use make because it agrees with the plural subject. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 19 '16 at 14:51
  • @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇: but the subject of the clause is "what," which is normally singular, and none of the rules for when it is plural that have been presented so far apply in this case. – sumelic Jan 19 '16 at 14:52
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I'm astonished to see that as I write, the only response is 4 users (one commenter and 3 upvoters) claiming our listeners is singular, and another comment effectively endorsing the singular usage by converting the noun phrase to a group/collection of our listeners.

I can only assume this sort of nonsense somehow arises from the AmE tendency to treat collective nouns as singular. But it's hard to see how listeners could be thought of as a "collective noun" in the same way as class, team, family etc. And I'm sure not even the most committed proponent of this grammatical principle could endorse, say, Our users is seriously mistaken.


TL;DR: Obviously listeners is plural, regardless of whether they're ours or not.

If anyone has doubts about the plurality of what, check out grammarphobia, where it says...

Note that “what” is construed as singular when the complement is singular, and plural when the complement is plural.


I love "AmE/BrE usage split" questions. These are what make ELU interesting. But according to NGrams, even Americans aren't likely to say these are what makes ELU interesting...

[]5

And even though it's fine to say what's between your ears is your brains, no-one says Our brains is what makes us (human). Where that link just has a couple of "accidental collocations" - the standard form is Our brains are what make us human.

  • @sumelic: Wow! And you're a native speaker? Amazingly, I can't find a clear-cut earlier question addressing this on either ELU or ELL (this is the best I could come up with). But check out this link. Do you still think what is inherently singular? – FumbleFingers Jan 19 '16 at 14:05
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    @sumelic: complement can have different meanings, but I'm not sure any of them are useful in this context. I would say it's a pronoun - the example given there being What we need is commitment, where it "stands for" the singular commitment. But in OP's example what is a pronoun standing for plural our listeners. – FumbleFingers Jan 19 '16 at 15:00
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    @Rathony: Are we still on the same planet? Sure, 5 weeks is a short time because the context doesn't allow you to treat it as plural, but Looking at the sales figures for last year, 5 weeks stand out as unusual (because the context doesn't allow you to treat them as either a single item or a single span of time). I really get the feeling you and sumelic are slavishly misapplying principles relevant to usages other than the text under consideration. Do you seriously dispute the implications of my NGram above, for example, and claim you're reflecting "common usage"? – FumbleFingers Jan 19 '16 at 15:53
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    @FumbleFingers I am not disputing your argument nor Ngram implication. Usages are there and I just played the devil's advocate. Many rules, especially on subject-verb or complement agreement seem to be changing. The old principles may not survive very long. I absolutely agree to using are after listeners. But I don't agree to using are in "What makes it possible is our listeners". Let me research on this further. – user140086 Jan 19 '16 at 16:16
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    @Rathony: Please do the research. I still find it hard to believe the current state of the votes here, after 48 people have visited the page. I was originally going to closevote as General Reference, but it's starting to look pretty obvious that a lot of people are at the very least uncertain where they stand on this usage. – FumbleFingers Jan 19 '16 at 16:47
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The original sentence implies question and answer. I'll start in a simple form and then move toward the OP sentence. Here is a simple form:

"What [makes] [the podcast] possible?"

 - "X makes [the podcast] possible," if X is singular. 
    - or "X does."
 - "X make [the podcast] possible," if X is plural. 
    - or "X do."

Where X is plural, English grammar requires the shift from singular (what makes) to plural (X do) between the question and answer. The question suggests but does not require a singular response, and when a plural is offered as an answer, it implies a sort of correction to the original question's suggestion.

To move a bit further toward the OP sentence: "What [is it that makes] [the podcast] possible?" And in the same way, a response may be singular or plural.

 - "X is."
 - "X are."

Now, English lets us pose and answer the question in the same sentence. In doing so, the statement retains the implicit correction of the original question. It helps to put quotation marks around the original question. Like so:

 - "X are 'what makes [the podcast] possible.'"

I think that the sentence contains a pleasing incongruity that draws in a curious listener. It contains a question, an answer, and a surprise, in a compact form. English is cool.

But the OP sentence implies the question: *"What [make] [the podcast] possible?" This definitely sounds weird in idiom, although grammatically I think it is acceptable. I would more typically say something like "What [things] make [the podcast] possible?" And the answer would be: "X are the things that do." This, however, is clunky, and so I would replace "the things that" with "what," like so:

 - What things make [the podcast] possible?
     - X are [the things that] make it possible.
     - X are [what] make it possible.

Using "what" as a plural relative pronoun in this instance is totally acceptable English - evidenced in part by the fact that native speakers should have no trouble understanding the OP sentence.

Coffee beans are what make this post possible.

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"Our listeners are what make X." I think, here X may be noun (any name of podcast channel, episode, or radio channel etc).

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    This doesn't address the question, which is about the agreement of singular and plural, not about 'X'. – Chenmunka Jun 30 '17 at 12:49

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