2

A friend of mine claims that a sentence like:

Foreign languages is what interests me.

is the only correct option, whereas using the plural are would be wrong.

I'm not convinced about this and I rather feel that the opposite of his claim is true. Which formation is correct? And where could I find information that explains the rationale behind this?

UPDATE:

I tried to search similar examples online but I could only find ones which use a plural form there:

Spoken languages are what they are by virtue of their verbal, not their written, manifestations.

source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/language/Physiological-and-physical-basis-of-speech

However, proto-languages are what many linguists agree on.

source: https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/proto-languages-and-their-evolution/ (John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University)

Languages are what make us get up in the morning (and coffee, or a mug of Cadbury's hot chocolate!)!

source: https://www.superpolyglotbros.com/who-we-are/ (Two English guys from Manchester)

Languages are what makes us unique and different.

source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/yourvoice/language_ecology.shtml

5
  • It’s just the school-course case, but Leon Panetta once testified, “I think we have got to get the same message across to the American people today, that foreign languages is not just a fringe subject. It’s something that’s very important to the future of this country.” I cannot help but wonder whether your friend could say one of Cats|cars|cattle|clothes is my main interest, or whether they would use are there.
    – tchrist
    Jul 15 at 0:26
  • 1
    The plural are is correct because the subject is plural. Jul 16 at 20:12
  • @ConsciousClay Thank you for your reply. However what do you think of the replies provided earlier by other natives, esp. Benjamin? They were arguing that the singular is should be the default option... Jul 16 at 20:41
  • It's really quite simple. If foreign languages was a word, then it would be in a dictionary. It's not. So it's not a word. If it's not a word, then obviously it's not a singular noun. What you are seeing are two words. And there's nothing strange about two words being next to each other. Jul 16 at 22:11
  • If we are treating this as a subject of study, perhaps it can be singular. I don't know any speakers who would use it this way though, considering politics is supposed to use singular construction but usually is treated as plural in spoken English. Physics and mathematics are generally still treated singularly though. Jul 16 at 23:29
2

The real issue is whether foreign languages can be, or even should be, treated as singular. To better resolve the issue, I suggest using a simpler sentence:

  1. Foreign languages interests me. [singular]

  2. Foreign languages interest me. [plural]

Ngram and Google News have no data for either, but Google Books shows plenty of 2, but not a single case of 1.

-3

It's the only correct option because "Foreign Languages" is a proper noun, as indicated by the capital letters at the beginning of each word, most especially the L since the F would be capitalized anyway for being the first letter of the sentence. The fact that it's a proper noun, the proper name of something, like the name of a university department or a degree program, is why it must use "is" instead of "are."

If it weren't a proper noun, if the sentence instead started out "Foreign languages," the L being lowercase indicating it's not a proper noun, then one could use "are" there.

UPDATE:

Even if it isn't a proper noun, if it's the name of a single thing, then "is" is still what's required, like one can say, "Languages and linguistics is what interests me." That's because "languages and linguistics" is the name of an area of study. When saying "is" there, it means that you're referring to that as a single thing, not saying that you're interested in languages and interested linguistics.

It's no different than saying, "Eggs is what I like for breakfast." Using "is" indicates that "eggs" is the name of a dish, which is singular, that it's not being used to mean plural eggs. Another example would be "blues" as a genre of a music, which is singular, meaning it is proper to say, "Blues is famous for its sad lyrics," but it is not proper to say, "Blues are famous for their said lyrics."

So, by saying, "Foreign languages is what interests me," one isn't saying one is interested in some vague plurality of "foreign languages" but is saying that "foreign languages" as a subject, which is singular, is what one is interested in.

7
  • Sorry Benjamin, it's not a proper noun, it was just a typo on my part. Sorry for that again and thanks for pointing it out! My colleague just refers to languages as a countable noun. However, you indicated that "are" could be used there, so even in that scenario you regard using a singular as the standard option? Jul 14 at 21:19
  • 1
    So are you saying that a sentence like "Foreign languages are what interests me" would be incorrect? I still feel like maybe there's a difference here between BrE & AmE. Jul 14 at 21:53
  • 1
    It doesn't matter how it's spelled or punctuated. If it refers to a single entity, like the name of a department or a major or a course, it's just a name like any other, and it's singular. It's the spoken language that counts, not the written, and in speech we would say foreign languages like nuclear physics and it would obviously be singular and nobody would ever notice. Jul 14 at 21:54
  • 1
    "Blues" is not "sort of a proper name," not that "sort of a proper name" is even a thing. "Blues" is a common noun, just like "foreign languages" is. Such a common noun, when it refers to a singular thing, like a "hobby" (your word, not mine) is counted as singular. There's no grammatical difference between "foreign languages" and "blues" in the given contexts. Jul 14 at 22:33
  • 2
    It doesn't have to be the name of a single thing though - it's the speaker's choice to present it that way.
    – rchivers
    Jul 15 at 0:06

This site is temporarily in read only mode and not accepting new answers.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .