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So I was reading the urban dictionary for the definition of the term 'LibLabCon', and the entry seemed grammatically correct:

LibLabCon is a phrase used by Britons who hold the belief that there is no real discernable differences between the mainstream political parties in Britain, and that the country is thus technically a one-party state.

Fair enough. No big deal. However, I noticed something weird in the relative clause that modified the noun phrase 'the belief'. The auxiliary verb 'be' didn't agree with the plural 'differences' in the clause's noun phrase ('no real discernable differences').

Is it grammatically correct to use the singular 'is', or should it be the plural 'are'? I am curious as to what governs the auxiliary verb in this relative clause so that I can answer this question. I thought it could be three things:

  1. The relative pronoun 'that'. This is because I have seen 'that' govern the auxiliary before (e.g. 'the people that are working hard will earn more' and 'the person that works the hardest will earn the most'). The antecedent 'belief' is singular.

  2. The grammatical expletive/dummy subject (or pronoun, whatever it's called). I believe that this would mean that the 'is' is correct.

  3. The noun phrase (this is what I believe actually governs it). Due to the fact that 'differences' is plural, the auxiliary verb 'are' would be correct instead of 'is'.

As you can tell, I'm a little confused. Any help would be much appreciated!

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    It should be either (1) there is no real discernible difference, or (2) there are no real discernible differences. The use of the belief that plays no role in the choice. – Jason Bassford Jul 7 at 19:49
  • Right. This is the kind of mistake that happens in writing when sentences have been edited and subject and verb are far apart. One tends to miss little things that don't really matter for the meaning, only the appearance. – John Lawler Jul 7 at 19:54
  • There is much that is weird about the sentence. There is a singular/plural mistake, as you mentioned; ‘discernable’ is misspelled for ‘discernible. Also, the author does not know what a one-party state is. A one-party state is one which the law allows only one political party. China is one such state, and North Korea is another. Finally, the author seems to have forgotten or not known that the total of official legal electoral parties is not one but 18 at the last count. This is not a matter of the usage of English, but it is misinformed. – Tuffy Jul 7 at 20:30
  • @JasonBassford I thought so. However, why does the relative pronoun play no role in the choice? I can think of examples where the antecedent (represented by the relative pronoun) governs the auxiliary 'be' (e.g. 'the student that procrastinates regularly is usually unsuccessful' and 'the students that procrastinate regularly are usually unsuccessful'). Why does the noun phrase govern the auxiliary verb? Is it the actual subject, and if so, what is the relative pronoun 'that', an object of the relative clause? – Tolga Jul 7 at 20:41
  • @Tolga In I believe that [ . . .] It makes no difference what follows that, so long as the clause that follows it is grammatical and it can stand on its own: (1) the sky is blue; (2) clowns are scary; or (3) everybody needs to have a nap. What follows that is an independent clause, and it can involve something singular or something plural. (Everything up to and including that is a dependent clause.) That's true of this particular type of construction—in which that is a conjunction used to introduce an independent clause. In this construction, it is not a pronoun. – Jason Bassford Jul 8 at 0:01

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