Is the following grammatically correct? “What I read was horse books.”

I feel like it should say “What I read were horse books”, but does “horse books” count as a single item, like a genre (mystery, horror, horse books?), or is it a plural - books-?

  • 2
    Since "what I read" is the subject of that sentence, the conjugation of the verb is based on the grammatical number of "what".
    – herisson
    Feb 19, 2018 at 4:08
  • @sumelic, And what, pray tell, is the grammatical number of "what"?
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 22, 2018 at 6:08
  • @GregLee: If I had an answer to the question, I would have posted more than just a comment ... I just wanted to clarify that point for the original poster, but I'm not sure about when "what" takes singular vs. plural agreement.
    – herisson
    Apr 22, 2018 at 6:38

2 Answers 2


I don't think either should be used since you could you just say "I read horse books", which implies the same thing and sounds better.

  • 1
    What if this is a correction to somebody that unintentionally or with malice stated the subject of your books wrong to anyone else? - Mary, did you know that, some time ago, fitzbella read many whores books?.
    – cdlvcdlv
    Jun 21, 2018 at 8:44

I don't think it is clear whether it should be "was" or "were". My personal reaction as an English speaker is that it should be "were". The subject of the sentence is "what I read", which is plural because it refers to more than one thing. In fact, that plural reference is what the sentence asserts.

Your example is a pseudo-cleft sentence, and such sentences are discussed briefly by McCawley on pages 64-66. What I have just said seems consistent with his partial analysis. See pseudo-clefts in Syntactic Phenomena.

On the other hand, perhaps the example can be construed as stating the subject matter of the books I read, and if "subject matter" is the referent of the subject, perhaps the main verb should be "was".

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