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I just wrote the following sentence:

Saying "Walkers cheese and chive crisps" is up there with thinking mushy peas were guacamole.

I am wondering whether I should or could have written:

Saying "Walkers cheese and chive crisps" is up there with thinking mushy peas was guacamole.

I know sticklers say that the verb "to be" does not have a subject and object, but instead has two subjects, so they insist on "it is I", not "it's me". I think insisting on "it is I" is nonsense, but nevertheless a consequence of that is that the number of both subjects should be the same. Certainly, both these examples sound right to me, yet both sound wrong. Have I broken grammar?

Some cultural background for non-Brits: a Labour (left-wing) politician in the UK was mocked for mistaking mushy peas (a fairly working-class and northern food) for guacamole (a much more middle-class food). My sentence above was a below-the-line comment mocking a journalist who styles himself as populist, but is actually pretty middle-class himself. Walkers cheese and onion crisps are a popular favour of a popular brand of crisps (chips) in the UK. Cheese and chive would be a flavour of a more up-market brand that a more middle-class person (like the journalist) might choose.

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    It was Peter Mandelson who mistook mushy peas for guacamole. He was a Labour MP and close confidant of Tony Blair, but never came close to being the party leader. – FumbleFingers Jul 23 '17 at 11:51
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    As a non-native speaker , from the second sentence I infer "mushy peas" refers to a "dish" not the "vegetable" – Mustafa Jul 23 '17 at 12:50
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    I note that fish and chips are expensive gets a claimed 6720 hits, as opposed to just 10 for fish and chips is expensive. Which puts me well and truly in the minority, because I'd nearly always use the singular verb form there (as @Mustafa says, the contextual implication is "fish and chips" is a dish, not two separate parts of a "compound subject"). – FumbleFingers Jul 23 '17 at 13:34
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    Just to be precise: no stickler who knows anything about language would claim that the two operands of the verb be (or any other copular verb) are both subjects. One is the subject; the other is a predicative complement to the subject. It is definitely not an object either, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 23 '17 at 15:07
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    @sumelic Oops, didn't see your comment there before writing basically the same thing. Must have appeared while I was typing (in between ordering soup). What I meant to add is that some very old-fashioned traditionalists (a group which quite likely has a large overlap with the group of self-proclaimed sticklers) insist that predicative complements must agree on case (though not number) with their referents; hence “it is I”, etc. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 23 '17 at 15:15
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An over specific side-note: the word is properly pease, or was for a long time in history.

The original singular was pease, and the plural was peasen. Over the centuries, pease became used as the plural, peasen was dropped, pea was created as a new singular, and finally pease was respelled peas.

While it was pease, it was considered an uncountable noun, like "wheat" or "corn", and your problem would have been solved. That doesn't help you now, of course.

All the cruft about "thinking" and "crisp" is irrelevant. Properly simplified, your question is, should you write "peas is guacamole" or "peas are guacamole"?

To my ear, the formal subject of "to be" dictates the grammatical number, and the "and" conjunction is always plural.

"Simon and Garfunkel were a musical group."

"Chris and Robin are a family."

  • Thanks for your reply. Your examples are a little different to mine, though, because "family" and "group" can (except in the minds of sticklers) but both singular or plural. – Matthew Taylor Jul 23 '17 at 15:17

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