I have no idea which of these sentences is correct:

Technical analysis and debate are what matter.


Technical analysis and debate are what matters.

The first sounds right to me because it's similar to the simple sentence "Technical analysis and debate matter." But looking at the direct object alone, "what matters" sounds more correct than "what matter".

Both usages look pretty common on Google.

  • 2
    I'm sure someone will disagree with me, but I think it depends on whether technical analysis and debate are considered to be one thing or two, which is not entirely clear from the context, despite the two nouns being separated by and. (I'm involved in technical analysis all the time, and it goes hand in hand with, and is not separable from, debate). I have a slight preference for matters, but then you'd have to say Technical analysis and debate is what matters. – Charl E Mar 2 '16 at 17:39

noun and noun are what matter.

Is the correct usage.

An easy way to break this down might be an examination of the use of is:

Drinking and driving is illegal


Drinking and driving are illegal

Drinking or driving separately are not illegal. Combined, however, it is illegal.

are is plural. is is singular.

As a combination of actions, you'd use is. In your case:

Technical Analysis and debate is what matters.

That would be a better comparison.

  • I think I get the is/are distinction. But what about matter/matters? Does that change depending on whether the subject is combined or separate? – Max Mar 2 '16 at 18:16
  • 2
    yes. is what matters would be correct, is what matter would be wrong. It's all about the plurality/singularity of the subject – Jared Hooper Mar 2 '16 at 18:19

The situation is more complicated than the other answers suggest. You are dealing with a "complex sentence" that contains two distinct clauses, one embedded in the other. The "matrix clause" has the subject "Technical analysis and debate" and the predicate "are what matter(s)". The embedded clause has the subject "what" and the predicate "matter(s)".

So the subject of the verb "matter(s)" in this sentence is not the plural noun phrase "Technical analysis and debate", but the pronoun what. The word what does not inflect for plurality. In a clause that has what as the subject, the verb usually takes singular inflection, even if what is meant to refer to multiple objects: we can say things like "They don't know what is in the bags", but we can't say things like "*They don't know what are in the bags". But in some cases, what can take plural agreement.

The following "Grammarphobia" blog post provides a summary of what some resources say about how to inflect verbs for grammatical number when what is the subject: When the complement was roses. Unfortunately, none of the examples discussed there seems exactly parallel to the sentence that you mention. They say that "what" can take plural agreement when it has a plural predicative complement in the embedded clause or in the matrix clause, but in your sentence, "what has no predicative complement—rather, "what matter(s)" is being used as a predicative complement of the subject of the matrix clause "Technical analysis and debate".

But some of the sources do bring up notional agreement. As Sahil Agarwal's answer and Charl E's comment suggest, if you choose to follow notional agreement here, the use of plural are in (your version of) the matrix clause seems to point towards using a plural verb in the embedded clause as well. If you use is in the matrix clause, as Jared Hooper suggests, it seems clear that you should use singular matters in the embedded clause.

I would recommend using whichever form sounds most natural to you.


The second statement is incorrect grammatically, no matter which way you look at it.

If we consider "Technical analysis and debate" as one activity, the statement should be "Technical analysis and debate is what matters."

But if we consider "Technical analysis and debate" as two different activities, the first statement "Technical analysis and debate are what matter." should be used.

As a general rule, use a plural verb with two or more subjects when they are connected by and.

Example: A car and a bike are my means of transportation.

But note these exceptions:

Exceptions: Breaking and entering is against the law. The bed and breakfast was charming.

In those sentences, breaking and entering and bed and breakfast are compound nouns.


  • You say the second statement is incorrect, but then say it should be written as-is. Typo? – Max Mar 2 '16 at 18:17

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