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I'm working on a translation with a few variations of this sentence:

Which part the underlined "drawings" refer to is unclear.

However, this has tripped me up:

Which embodiments the underlined "preferred embodiments" refer to (is/are) unclear.

The original language is conveniently structured such that it unambiguously reads "(The uncertain situation of) which embodiments the underlined "preferred embodiments" refer to is unclear. But is the English syntax the same? Or should "be" agree with "embodiments"?

  • singular is for singular, plural is for plural so it is are – Archie Azares Jul 8 '16 at 1:30
  • Which embodiments // (that) the underlined "preferred embodiments" refer to // (is/are) unclear. -> Which embodiments (is/are) unclear. -> Which embodiments are unclear? – Archa Jul 8 '16 at 1:46
  • apologies for the mistake. I forgot that the subject was the one which can be seen before the word "which". Upon reanalyzing the sentence given, the "preferred embodiment" should not affect the sentence. Anyways, the subject of the sentence seems unclear yet. I can't say that this should be "is" or this should be "are" since I still don't know what the subject of the sentence is. – Archie Azares Jul 8 '16 at 2:06
  • One might argue that the sentence could be rewritten as It is unclear which embodiments the underlined "preferred embodiments" refer to. in which case an invisible "it" is the subject. Personally, I'm not sure I buy that. – Herbert Carstino Jul 8 '16 at 2:23
  • you should use is as a linking verb here if you are going to use the pronoun it – Archie Azares Jul 8 '16 at 5:06
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Which embodiments the underlined preferred embodiments refer to is/are unclear.

Looking at this sentence it might be easy to think that the subject of the verb BE, which heads the predicate is embodiments or perhaps preferred embodiments. However, the sentence has the following structure:

  • X is unclear.

We can see straight away from the sentence above that the Subject of the sentence is the constituent X. In the Original Poster's example, X is an interrogative clause:

  • Which embodiments the underlined embodiments refer to

We can see that it's an interrogative clause by making it the compliment of the verb ask:

  • She's asking which embodiments the underlined embodiments refer to.

When the Subject of a sentence is a clause, we always see singular verb agreement:

  • That she is not here yet is problematic.
  • For her to do that is undesirable.

Therefore we need singular verb agreement in the Original Poster's sentence:

  • [Which embodiments the underlined preferred embodiments refer to] is unclear.

It does not matter if the Subject of the subordinate interrogative clause is singular or plural.

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