I'm proofreading a text that includes the following passage:

Semiology is defined in A Glossary of Literary Terms as ‘the systematic study of signs, as these function in all areas of human existence’. So perhaps this is what all modern literary and artistic study is.

It's the second sentence I'm having trouble with, particularly the phrase, "what all modern literary and artistic study is."

I can't decide whether that sentence should end with "is" or "are". If I were editing, I would just rewrite the sentence, but I don't have the remit to do that as a proofreader.

A compound subject linked with the word "and" would normally take the plural:

"…what all modern literary [study] and artistic study are."

But neither "is" nor "are" sound correct to me.

I'm assuming that it is a compound subject in that it is referring to two types of study (literary study and artistic study) rather than a single subject (study that is, at the same time, both artistic and literary).

Is this a compound subject, as I'm assuming it to be, or a single subject? Or is there a better way to think about this problem?

  • Does this answer your question? Agreement With Compound Subjects Joined by And (1) Forget the terminology, and the actual example you have, which is complicated by the 'this is'. The duplicate looks at whether the 'twinned' (coordinate) subject is really two items, or really a single cohesive whole (eg 'Bacon and eggs is not on the menu'). Here (though not necessarily in all examples using the twinned phrase), I'd consider 'all ... – Edwin Ashworth Apr 8 at 9:56
  • modern literary and artistic study' to be a largely cohesive discipline, and use singular agreement. (2) Happily, this does not jar when preceded by the 'this is' (though the style, 'this is all X is', seems to border on the informal). – Edwin Ashworth Apr 8 at 9:56
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    There isn't a compound subject joined by "and" here. The subject is "all study", which is qualified by "modern" and "literary and artistic". What's joined by "and" is the adjectival phrase. So the overall noun phrase clearly calls for singular agreement. – Karl Knechtel Apr 8 at 10:17
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    What @KarlKnechtel said. The one and only subject noun is study, which is obviously singular. – FumbleFingers Apr 8 at 11:03
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    Would there be so much fuss about an irrelevant detail like singular/plural be agreement if the sentence had been So perhaps this is modern literary and artistic study, I wonder. I doubt it seriously. And yet simply forming a Wh-cleft out of that sentence left the is protruding from the sentence, where it is prone to damage. – John Lawler Apr 8 at 19:04

Using "is" works fine when you understand the author to mean that modern (literary and artistic) study refers to a single type of study. The and is joining two adjectives, not two nouns.

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    But in 'Many fires and stoves use a combination of radiant and convected heat', one must realise the deletion of the first noun, thus: 'Many fires and stoves use a combination of radiant heat and convected heat'. And this string would not use singular agreement: 'Radiant and convected heat are quite different forms of heat transfer.' The and may be (and in the 'heat' example is) joining two NPs, not adjectives. The old 'and' ambiguity needs addressing: 'Jane likes red and white cars.' – Edwin Ashworth Apr 8 at 11:50
  • @perpetual Your are right.The head of the NP is the singular noun "study", which means that the verb should also be singular, i.e. "is". The other dependents, "modern literary and artistic" are modifiers within the nominal of which "study" is head. The fact that the dependents may form a coordination is not relevant here. – BillJ Apr 8 at 13:13
  • @EdwinAshworth is right that "modern literary and artistic study" could mean "modern literary study AND modern artistic study." As I reflect on this, I wonder if it's the word "all" that is significant: "Literary study and artistic study are important." but "All literary study and artistic study is important." If this is correct, then I think KarlKnechtel was closest to the right answer when he said that the subject of this sentence is "all study" and therefore should use the singular "is." – Matthew Parkinson Apr 8 at 14:00
  • @MatthewParkinson Not quite: "all" is a determiner in the subject NP "all modern literary and artistic study". Singular "study" is head and the rest are modifiers. – BillJ Apr 8 at 15:22
  • @BillJ but do you agree that one would say "literary study and artistic study ARE important" and "ALL literary study and artistic study IS important"? – Matthew Parkinson Apr 10 at 9:40

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