For the sentence:

Sitting with Mike is the parents of the boy who died.

Should it be is or are? My instinct says it should be

Sitting with Mike are the parents of the boy who died.

But Grammarly etc are not picking either up as wrong.

Can someone help with this, as I am unsure of which is actually correct?

Or are they both? Is it because parents is plural so are can be used, but the boy is singular so is can also be used?

Which is technically the subject of the sentence?

  • @JessicaTiberio I cannot see how that question is the same as this one. – tchrist Feb 10 '18 at 19:39
  • 1
    It's very simple. The subject is the plural noun phrase "the parents of the boy who died", so the verb should also be plural, i.e. "are". The basic (non-preposed) equivalent is "The parents of the boy who died are sitting with Mike". – BillJ Feb 10 '18 at 19:52

What’s happening here is that the computer algorithm isn’t recognizing that this is a fronted -ing verb used as a modifier that’s triggering subject–verb inversion.

It is treating that -ing verb as the subject, and since all non-finite verbs used substantively are always singular, it’s thinking that the verb should be singular to match. It’s wrong, because that’s not what’s happening here.

Rather, this is the un-inverted version, which clearly shows that the subject is “the parents of the boy who died”:

The parents of the boy who died are sitting with Mike.

You can use the CMU link-parser tool for an online constituency parse for simple sentences like these. For that sentence it shows:

(S (NP (NP The parents)
       (PP of
           (NP (NP the boy)
               (SBAR (WHNP who)
                     (S (VP died))))))
   (VP are
       (VP sitting
           (PP with
               (NP Mike))))

which when fronted becomes

Sitting with Mike are the parents of the boy who died.

Here’s its constituent tree:

(S Sitting
   (PP with
       (NP Mike))
   (VP are
       (NP (NP the parents)
           (PP of
               (NP (NP the boy)
                   (SBAR (WHNP who)
                         (S (VP died)))))))

For that one, you have to look at the actual linkages to see the connections:

    |         +--------PF-------+----SIpx---+      +---Js--+----Bs----+   |
    +----Wq---+--MVp--+-Js-+    |    +--Dmc-+--Mp--+  +-Ds-+--R-+--RS-+   |
    |         |       |    |    |    |      |      |  |    |    |     |   |
LEFT-WALL sitting.v with Mike are.v the parents.n of the boy.n who died.v . 

If you click on the "PF" link there that it’s a link-type that’s used for a front participial phrase, which is what this is. And that "SI" part of the "SIpx" link is one that clicking on it will show is used for subject–verb inversion. That shows what the real subject of the verb is.

If you want that to be an -ing verb used as the subject, you’d need something like:

Sitting with Mike is hard for the parents of the boy who died.

And here’s its constituent tree:

(S (NP Sitting
       (PP with
           (NP Mike)))
   (VP is
       (ADJP hard
             (PP for
                 (NP (NP the parents)
                     (PP of
                         (NP (NP the boy)
                             (SBAR (WHNP who)
                                   (S (VP died)))))))))
  • Hi tchrist. Thank you, that's what I thought. I should know I can't completely trust Grammarly and the sort. Even when I had messed around with the un-inverted and added to the sentence, Grammarly is still showing both of the following as correct: The parents of the boy who died in North Korea are sitting with Mike. The parents of the boy who died in North Korea is sitting with Mike. I am still confused why "is" would show as correct for Grammarly in this example. – Amy Feb 10 '18 at 19:11
  • @Amy A program is only as smart as its programmers — and then only if you’re exceptionally lucky. – tchrist Feb 10 '18 at 19:12
  • Would "are" still be the correct choice in those sentences, when I added to the sentence? – Amy Feb 10 '18 at 19:14
  • @Amy I cannot account for a bug in a computer program. I can only explain what the correct parse is and why. If you do "Show all linkages" with the CMU tool, you will see multiple possible parses. I'm sure that what’s going on with the error of "is" in the long version is that the parser it’s using is choosing the wrong linkage, one where "the boy who died is sitting" is the object of the preposition in "the parents of". However, when you do that you end up with only a Noun Phrase, not a complete Sentence completely with its own subject governing a finite verb. It’s a bug no real parser does. – tchrist Feb 10 '18 at 19:31

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