Here are three sentences to help me ask this question:

  1. The cats are all that they own.
  2. All that they own is the cats.
  3. All that they own are the cats.

The first sentence is definitely correct as written. However, I'm not sure whether 2 or 3 is correct.

To explain my doubt, take another couple of examples:

  1. The clothes on their backs is all that they own.
  2. The clothes on their backs are all that they own.

To my ear, both of these sentences sound correct, but their meanings are different.

The first sentence is saying, "The only clothes that they own are the ones on their backs."

The second sentence is saying, "The only thing[s?] they own is[are?] the clothes on their backs."

The fact that it's difficult for me to word this second sentence in the inverted format is why I think I'm having trouble.

  • Is your question about a plural or singular subject (they versus he or she) or is it about a plural or singular object (the cats)? If this is only about the cats, I would strongly suggest replacing they with an unambiguously singular subject so that your question doesn't involve multiple issues. (I would edit it before anybody answers it as it is . . .) Jul 14, 2018 at 14:17
  • Neither, it's about whether 'all' is singular or plural. In sentences 2 and 3, 'all' is the subject and I'm not sure if it should take 'is' or 'are'. As for replacing they with he/she, it seems to me that that doesn't matter. The only word in the sentences that corresponds to 'they' is 'own', which is correct. If I changed it to 'he', 'own' would change to 'owns', but nothing else (for the sake of my question, I mean).
    – Nahcirn
    Jul 14, 2018 at 17:33
  • Assuming a group of people, do you say they all own cats or do you say they all own a cat if you want to express the fact everybody, individually, owns one and only one cat? (This is not what you mean to ask, but it could be a red herring with the use of they). Jul 14, 2018 at 18:14
  • Just between all that he owns is his cats and all that he owns are his cats, this seems like a duplicate of english.stackexchange.com/questions/318368/…. Jul 14, 2018 at 18:24
  • Your examples are rather contrived and even so “The cats are all that they own” is workable; the other examples are not. If you think “All that they own is the cats” or “… are the cats” could be justified, please try justifying it. Please note, no number of cats is comparable to clothes unless you can explain how. Please understand both “The clothes on their backs is…” and “The clothes on their backs are all that they own…” fail for their own reasons. “All that they own is the clothes on their backs” is not comparable, the difference being that between “clothes” and “clothing.” Aug 1, 2018 at 21:53


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