I have asked one grammarian about this and she ended up being unsure of her answer. Question: is there a possibility that a noun clause is used in a plural manner? For instance: - Her eyes and nose are WHAT SCARE ME. - WHAT SCARE ME are her eyes and nose.

Should the word "scare" be "scares" in the examples? Should "are" be "is" then?


Interesting question :)

I'd say this is an example of a fused relative (see e.g. CaGEL* p 1073); that is, what scares me is not a clause at all, but a noun phrase, where what is a fusion between the head function and the relativised element of a postmodifying relative clause. In this case it could be paraphrased either as that which scares me where that is the head, and which is the relativised subject of the postmodifying relative clause which scares me, or as the things which scare me, where the determiner the, the head things and the relativised subject of the postmodifying relative clause which scare me have fused.

In answer to your question, then, it could be what scare me are her eyes and nose as well as what scares me is her eyes and nose.

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    Yeah, it's short for the thing that scares me, or in this case, it could just as easily be the things that scare me. Since this is a commutable verb phrase, Her eyes and nose are what scare(s) me is just as good. And either singular or plural will do for scare(s), since what can mark either number. It depends, in other words, on what you mean. – John Lawler Apr 27 '19 at 21:48
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    @JohnLawler Thank you – that's what I was uncertain about. I'll edit my answer to make it clearer :) – Hannah Apr 27 '19 at 21:59
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    Well said, Hannah. +1 – BillJ Apr 28 '19 at 7:15
  • @BillJ Thank you. Means a lot coming from you :) – Hannah Apr 28 '19 at 7:20

It's right as you had it: 'scare' and 'are'. 'Eyes and nose' are three things and require plural verbs. 'what' doesn't have separate singular and plural forms.

  • The first part of the first example is correct, yes, but not the rest, right? Is that what you mean? Also, I'm curious about your last sentence there – "'what' doesn't have separate singular and plural forms" – what do you mean by that? Would it be possible to clarify? – Hannah Apr 27 '19 at 21:23
  • (a) "Her eyes and nose are WHAT SCARE ME." - "WHAT SCARE ME are her eyes and nose." Both are right. (b) 'What' is always 'what'; it doesn't change form according to whether one object or more than one object is being referred to. – Philip Wood Apr 27 '19 at 21:31
  • Ah, right, now I see what you meant by that last sentence, and of course you're right about that – that it doesn't change its form, I mean. It's always singular. :) I disagree with the rest though – surely it should be Her eyes and nose are what scares me and What scares me is her eyes and nose respectively? – Hannah Apr 27 '19 at 21:38
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    'what' ISN'T singular: 'what' can refer to either singular or plural.In your sentence you can replace "what" by "the things that". I'd like to apologise for an unintentionally patronising tone, by the way. – Philip Wood Apr 27 '19 at 21:48
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    @Hannah- 'what' asks a question, and does not presume to know the quantity beforehand. Although the answer may be singular or plural, we can see by the agreement that it is usually used in a singular way, and we do not ask questions like "*what are in the fridge", "*what fall from the sky", "*what are on TV tonight", even when we expect a plural answer. – AmI Apr 28 '19 at 4:01

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