The first time I heard it (When You Believe by Leon Jackson), my grammar instinct screamed "When all you hear are fear and lies." But then again, I feel that the phrase "all you hear are" sounds a little odd, "all you hear is" sounds perfectly fine to me. But maybe I am wrong.

Would you use is or are in such a phrase?

  • What do I think of the original phrasing? I think all is well... – J.R. Jul 10 '12 at 15:04
  • I'm afraid interpreting song lyrics is off topic. – Matt E. Эллен Jul 10 '12 at 15:08
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    But I don't want to discuss the meaning or any interpretation of the song here, for its meaning (at least the meaning of the mentioned phrase) should be clear to everyone. – Damkerng T. Jul 10 '12 at 15:30

"All" here actually means "The only thing," as in:

The only thing you hear is fear and lies.

So, for me, the original line is better.

*All is singular when used as the subject with a linking verb or when it means the only thing or everything: All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth; all we found was candy wrappers and soda cans.

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  • Thank you for the reference. Am I correct to say, according to the Style Manual, we should always say "All I have is", "All you want is", and never "All I see are", "All you hear are"? – Damkerng T. Jul 10 '12 at 15:46
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    @DamkerngT. No, there are plenty of situations where those examples could be flipped from singular to plural (or plural to singular) and still be grammatical. "All I have are diamonds," for example, is something you could say during a card game. It is a shorter version of "All [the cards that] I have are diamonds." – Cameron Jul 10 '12 at 15:51
  • Your answer is very satisfying! Now everything is clear to me. Thank you once again. – Damkerng T. Jul 10 '12 at 15:59

The words that precede the verb determine its form, not the words that follow it, so we can disregard the fact that fear and lies is plural. The relevant question is whether all is singular or plural. If it’s singular, the verb is is. If it’s plural, the verb is are. In other contexts there would be no hesitation over making it singular: All I know is that . . ., All that glitters is not gold. There seem to be no grounds for making an exception here, so When all you hear is fear and lies seems above reproach.

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You can use is because 'fear and lies' is one unit of meaning.

In the same way you would say "all he eats is fish and chips", because fish and chips is one meal, or "his favourite drink is gin and tonic" because G&T is one drink.

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This is ambiguous; context is required.

If fear and lies is considered a single unit: All you hear is (the combination of) fear and lies.

If fear and lies is a subset: All you hear (of the possible choices) are fear and lies. Hope is not mentioned.

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'Are' is correct to my mind. The trouble is that people these days have difficulty in making verb and subject agree.

Perhaps 'is' sounds o.k. in this instance because both nouns are abstract, amorphous nouns that tend to run together in the mind, giving the impression of 'stuff' rather than 'units'.

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