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Which of these two sentences are correct?

  • The first day of school photos is coming
  • The first day of school photos are coming
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  • As a parent in my second decade of "first day of school" photos (something my wife requires each year), it never would have occurred to me that this could be referring to the first day of [a multi-day] school [photo shoot]. Photos, in elementary and middle school, rarely take more than a day; even at my kids' High School (the largest in San Francisco), they only have multiple days because students are loathe to miss class to get their picture taken. Also, it's usually (in my experience, in multiple districts) called, simply, picture day; one wouldn't normally call the event school photos. Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 20:26
  • Long story short, more context is needed. Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 20:26

2 Answers 2

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Both of the sentences are correct, the context however of one differs from the other.

  1. The first day of school photos is coming.

In this sentence, the The first day is the topic whereas of school photos is the prepositional phrase telling more about the topic.

  1. The first day of school photos are coming.

In this sentence, the photos is the topic of the sentence whereas The first day of school is a noun phrase telling more about the topic.

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  • +1: Whoever downvoted this answer fails to see that the 2nd interpretation here may be correct if "first day of school" is construed as a modifier of photos. (It must be said, however, that normally one would hyphenate such a modifier as "first-day-of-school photos," though that is certainly not a grammatical requirement.)
    – Robusto
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 19:44
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The subject of a verb is not necessarily the closest preceding noun.

What is coming? The first day

day is the subject, and as a singular noun, takes is as the verb.

The photos are not coming; they're the object of the preposition of. The phrase of school photos tells you what kind of day.

If instead you actually mean the photos taken on the first day of school are coming, then photos is the subject and first day of school is an extended adjective modifier: the first-day-of-school photos, so to speak. In that case, plural subject, plural verb.

In spoken language, it's easy to differentiate the two; in writing, it's ambiguous. So if it’s really the photos you have in mind, recast the sentence.

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    Karl, please clean this up. The normal interpretation of the sentence would be that the photos taken on the first day of school are coming. It's quite a stretch to interpret it to mean that the first of the "day of school photos" is coming.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 19:45
  • @HotLicks: Thank you for your opinion. It's one I don't share. It's somewhat like the optical illusion with the spinning ballerina. First day of school photos [being shot] or photos shot on the first day of school. Both are equally likely parsings.
    – KarlG
    Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 1:20
  • Zits comic for Friday, September 07, 2018: "Jeremy, we forgot to take our traditional 'first day of school' photo".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 2:00

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