Which of the following is correct?

What he is looking for are books written by Jane Austin.

What he is looking for is books written by Jane Austin.

Is it are to agree with the object books or is to agree with the subject he?

  • 2
    What he is looking for is books by Jane Austen.
    – Colin Fine
    May 5, 2016 at 22:13
  • It may depend whether the object or objects sought is a complete collection or a partial selection. 1) `What he is looking for are (all) books written by Jane Austin. 2) What he is looking for is (some) books written by Jane Austin. Alternating emphasis between "What" and "for" changes things. 1a) What he is looking for are books written by Jane Austin. 2a) What he is looking for is books written by Jane Austin. Perhaps the emphasis and the number selected are related.
    – agc
    May 5, 2016 at 23:24
  • @agc thanks for your answer. I am still a little confused. If it is a partial selection, would not some still indicate a plural sense? Why is it that if we emphasize for, are is correct?
    – Shim Shay
    May 5, 2016 at 23:48
  • I don't know why. My test is reading it aloud, emphasizing various words, which in this case seems as though it might be altering the grammatical structure of the sentence. I don't know how either, assuming the hypotheses that stress and accent have odd lower level grammatical properties. It is puzzling.
    – agc
    May 6, 2016 at 2:30
  • On Google Books I find what I/we/they/etc need is leaders and also (...) are leaders; are opportunities but not (...) is opportunities; (...) is books [in general] and (...) are books [of a particular type].
    – Jacinto
    May 6, 2016 at 18:00

4 Answers 4


I believe either one is actually correct, since the thing that determines the verb's case is the noun that comes first in the predicate nominative expression (on the left side of the imaginary equals sign). In this sentence, that first noun is what, which is technically a pronoun, but stands in for the noun that comes later. But of course, at this point in the sentence, it has not yet been determined whether the predicate noun that what is referring to is singular or plural, so the verb is essentially given the benefit of the doubt and is allowed to take either case, regardless of what the predicate noun turns out to be. This flexibility really only arises out of the fact that what is naturally ambiguous in number. If the sentence had begun The things he is looking for..., the predicate would have had to have been are books. Similarly, if the sentence had begun The thing he is looking for..., the predicate would have been singular - is books.

  • 3
    I'm not sure the subject and predicate nominative do need to agree in number. Consider a sentence like The problem with the Internet is trolls. (Not the best example sentence, but you get the idea.) You can reword to avoid the mismatch, but you can't really make problem plural or trolls singular in this sentence. May 6, 2016 at 14:45
  • Well yeah, I wasn't saying the subject and predicate have to agree, I was saying the verb has to agree with the number of the subject - the left side of the construction.
    – Nick
    May 6, 2016 at 16:52

The first is grammatically correct since we'll want are to agree with books:

What he is looking for are books written by Jane Austin.

And this might be a bit awkward to say, so we can restructure it to something like the following, which makes the verb agreement a bit more obvious, I think:

The books, written by Jane Austin, are what he's looking for.

Although, we do end with a preposition in this case :-) That said, in English, it's common to end informal (verbal) sentences with a preposition, otherwise one might sound too formal for the occasion!


User sumelic found the article below which describes the issue at the heart of OP's question.


To quote:

There are many good discussions of this problem. One of the more succinct can be found in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.):

“When the what in the what-clause is the object of the verb and the complement of the main clause is singular, the main verb is always singular: What they wanted was a home of their own.”

The usage note continues: “When the complement of the main sentence is plural, the verb is most often plural: What American education needs are smaller classes.”

  • 3
    I agree with your answer, but I pretty much hate your restructured sentence. "Books written by Jane Austin are what he's looking for," seems much better if you want to demonstrate the noun / verb agreement, but I know I'd probably just say "He's looking for books written by Jane Austin."
    – PellMel
    May 5, 2016 at 22:25
  • @PellMel Yeah I suppose I could have made that more clear; the purpose was to demonstrate the agreement by just reordering the words - but I could see where I added a value judgment by implying the latter might be better to say, whereas I agree with your rewording 100%. That's the natural approach for sure.
    – lux
    May 5, 2016 at 22:28
  • I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the sentences be rewritten to eliminate the problem altogether by simply stating that "He is looking for books by Jane Austen." I was about to post this as an answer when I saw that @PellMel had arrived at nearly the same solution.
    – KWinker
    May 6, 2016 at 2:19
  • Why should "are" agree with "books"? "Books" is not the subject of the verb, it's the complement.
    – herisson
    Jan 13, 2017 at 23:10
  • @sumelic Thanks for the downvote. And yes, it is the subject when you restructure the sentence, which necessitates "are" over "is".
    – lux
    Jan 14, 2017 at 17:19

I'm a bit out of my comfort zone on this one, but I believe the sample sentence is an example of an inverse copular construction.

In the inverse copular constructions, the copula agrees with the singular predicative expression to its left as opposed to with the plural subject to its right. Interestingly, this phenomenon seems to be limited to English (and possibly French); it does not occur in related languages such as German, e.g.

however, the reverse is not necessarily true

Inverse copular constructions where the inverted predicative expression is a noun phrase are noteworthy in part because subject-verb agreement can (at least in English) be established with the pre-verb predicative NP as opposed to with the post-verb subject NP, e.g.
a. The pictures are a problem. - Canonical word order, standard subject-verb agreement
b. A problem is/??are the pictures. - Inverse copular construction, subject-verb agreement reversed in a sense

from wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverse_copular_constructions


What he is looking for is...

Verbs need to agree with their subjects. books is not the subject—nor is it an object. It's a predicate nominative. he is also not the subject of the sentence. After all, he is not books.

The subject of the sentence is the noun phrase what he is looking for, which has a head noun of what. Personally, I would treat this as singular, as would Daily Writing Tips.

  • 1
    I agree that's the subject, but it's a noun phrase, not a noun clause. It's called a 'fused relative' construction where the antecedent and the relative word are fused together. In this case, "what" is simultaneously head of the NP and complement of the preposition "for". The meaning is comparable to the non-fused "the thing which".
    – BillJ
    May 6, 2016 at 6:54
  • Interesting. I hadn't heard the term "fused relative" before. This certainly seems like a fit. Wikipedia has this listed on the English relative clauses page, though, so are you sure this constitutes a noun phrase and not a noun clause? One last comment: I read looking for as a phrasal verb, where the clause would be equivalent to what he is seeking. May 6, 2016 at 14:31
  • Absolutely! Here’s a link to a scholarly resource that explains it all (note the authors make it clear that fused relatives are NPs, not clauses: link (scroll down a tad to item 4). “Look” when combined with “for” in the sense ‘attempt to find’ is a prepositional verb, so “look for” is a verbal idiom.
    – BillJ
    May 6, 2016 at 15:21
  • Thanks! I've updated my answer to call it a noun phrase. Seems the source Wikipedia is citing agrees as well: "The underlined sequence here is an NP, not a clause; it is distributionally and semantically comparable to expressions that are more transparently NPs..." May 6, 2016 at 17:25

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