Two guys meet each other at night and one of them shows the other a box where there are three guns. Then a police officer appears and asks:

What is in the box?

Can the guy whom was shown the box whisper to his pal

Don't show him what are in the box! ?

I read that if we knew or presupposed about something that was plural we could say sentences like that with plural forms or verbs. This way the police officer doesn't know anything about the singular/plural form of what is in the box. Therefore he uses "is". However, the boys knowing the amount of the guns is three use "are". Am I right?

P.S. If he can, will it be wrong if he still says:

Don't show him what is in the box! ?

  • 1
    'Don't show him what is in the box' is the more natural and is equivalent to 'Don't show him the contents of the box'. Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 14:22
  • But the "are" version is not incorrect? Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 14:24
  • 1
    I would take it as an indication of "illiterate" speech.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 14:25
  • 1
    Not ungrammatical, but at best highfalutin'. I'd avoid it. Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 14:31
  • 3
    The word you're using is "what", and it is singular. I would not use "are". Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 15:18

1 Answer 1


The entire embedded question

what [is/are] in the box

is a noun clause serving as direct object for the main clause’s verb show.

This embedded clause has its own subject, which here happens to be what; when it’s the subject of a finite clause as it is here, what by itself is always singular and so demands a singular verb. Correct agreement therefore demands is here, never are.

Try it with other embedded question clauses. Consider questions like:

  • Who is on the phone?
  • What is next?
  • Which is best?

Now imagine that the X here is that same embedded question just given:

  • I’ll show you X.
  • I don’t know X.
  • I wonder X.

That yields things like:

  • I’ll show you who is on the phone.
  • I don’t know what is next.
  • I wonder which is best.

When the qustion word is not itself the subject, you have to look at the actual subject’s grammatical number to pick its verb:

  • What are your friends doing?
  • Which ideas are discarded?
  • What noises are you afraid of?
  • How is she feeling?
  • How are you feeling?
  • Whose parents are missing?
  • When is she calling?
  • When are they calling?
  • Why is she calling?
  • Why are they calling?

Now embed those, taking care to undo any inversion where needed:

  • I’ll show you what your friends are doing.
  • I don’t know which ideas are discarded.
  • I wonder what noises you are afraid of.
  • I’m not sure how she is feeling.
  • I’ll ask how you are feeling.
  • I can see whose parents are missing.
  • I always know when she is calling.
  • I can tell you when they are calling.
  • Let me show you why she is calling.
  • I wonder why they are calling.

Sometimes you can get an implied plural subject when the interrogative is acting as the determiner of an implied subject that’s been omitted because it was just used.

  • Whose marbles are in the box?
    I wonder whose are there.

  • Which ideas are best?
    I don’t know which are best.

But with what, you can’t leave out the noun or pronoun.

  • What new products are ready?
    I can’t tell you what ones are ready.
  • Can "who" act as the determiner? If there were something alive in the box in my sentence, for example, three little dwarves, would it be correct to say "Don't show him who are in the box"? Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 15:53
  • 1
    @MichaelAzarenko No, it can't. You can say "I know the people who are coming" but you cannot say "I don't know who are coming".
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 22:49
  • Even if I know beforehand there are more than one coming? Commented Jun 5, 2020 at 4:02
  • 1
    @MichaelAzarenko Yes, even if more than one is coming.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 5, 2020 at 4:14

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