Food allergies are adverse reactions to an otherwise harmless food or food component that involves an abnormal response of the body's immune system to specific protein(s) in foods.

This is a beginning sentence of a paper on food allergies. I was wondering what the subject of the verb involves and have asked opinions from three English language experts who also have scientific knowledge, but their opinions vary. Their answers were as follows:

Person 1: The subject is food allergies and the verb should be involve.

Person 2: The subject is abnormal response and the verb should be involve.

Person 3: The subject is food or food component, so this sentence is correct. He also pointed out that the paper is written in British English (I showed him the following sentences and he got some clues from there) so here involves means evokes or causes.

Which of these opinions is the correct one?

  • @Matt: I'm not sure why the title of this question was edited from "what is the subject" to "how can I determine the subject", because the OP seems to be asking (and others seem to be answering) the former, not the latter. However, I'm reluctant to edit it back in case there was a specific reason I'm not aware of...? Aug 1, 2012 at 1:54
  • I don't know much British English, but I've never heard "involve" used to mean "evoke" or "cause," and OED doesn't give that definition either. Furthermore, the original document from the FAO shows that the very next sentence is: "True food allergies may involve several types of immunological responses (Sampson and Burks, 1996)."
    – jello
    Aug 1, 2012 at 3:03
  • @aaamos That's true. I think I changed it because asking "what is the subject of this sentence" comes across to me as too localised, whereas the question "how do I determine the subject" is something that applies to everyone. Feel free to change it back. Aug 1, 2012 at 7:19
  • Thanks, @MattЭллен, I took the liberty of changing it back and removed the invitation to give "opinions" while I was at it. Aug 2, 2012 at 2:36

7 Answers 7


I think your Person 2 is supposed to say that the subject of the verb "involve" is "adverse reactions." I agree with the example that tchrist says, although the "Person 2" example wouldn't make sense. I think you should edit your question title to ask for the subject of the verb, because the subject of the sentence is obviously "food allergies."

And scientifically, that would make the most sense to me. It's not usually the food that's the cause of the problem, but the body's improper immune response to it. The body is normally able to discriminate between food (which should have no immune response) and bacteria, fungi, and other bad things (which should be attacked by your mucosal immune system). But you were asking about grammar, not biology...

I put this in a comment but also want to add it here. The next sentence from the original FAO report says: "True food allergies may involve several types of immunological responses." I think that makes it unlikely that the scientists intended to use the definition in the third example.


I vote for number two. I think the sentence is fundamentally trying to say:

Allergies are reactions that involves a response.

Which if my reading is correct, means that involves needs to be involve.

  • That reading totally discards something (call it X) which I think is quite important to the sentence. X = "to an otherwise harmless food or food component". Try putting it back in, as "Food allergies are adverse reactions to X, that involve an abnormal response to something within X. That makes more sense to me. It's still crap writing though. Jul 26, 2012 at 4:40
  • 1
    @Fumble: even when you put X back in, though, the predicate involve(s) should still agree with the subject allergies, shouldn't it? (X is a prepositional phrase that should be able to be inserted or removed without changing the tense of the verb.)
    – J.R.
    Jul 26, 2012 at 9:47
  • @J.R.: Surely. I didn't mean the verb tense was wrong - I just meant the basic structure is "Allergies are X's that involve Y's". However I look at it, the subject of that is allergies (not an abnormal response, which just happens to be part of the convoluted phrase I just represented as X). On the basis of grammar alone, John Lawler is prepared to accept that "involves" could be valid - but semantically and stylistically, I think not. Terrible writing though it is, the only credible subject is "Allergies". Jul 26, 2012 at 11:28
  • ...although having said that, I realise it's equally valid (and semantically equivalent) to say the subject is "reactions", since the first three words in tchrist's recasting actually tell us that those two nouns represent the same thing[s]. So they both match OP's interpretation #1, not #2 which tchrist has plumped for here. Jul 26, 2012 at 11:32
  • @FumbleFingers My answer is predicated on the assumption that the “that” is referring back to “reactions”, because that’s what makes the most sense semantically to me. That’s why it needs a plural verb “involve”. John’s answer posits that the sentence is a priori grammatical and so searches for a singular subject to match “involves” no matter whether it’s sensible or not, somewhat as one does in decoding Latin. His chosen subject of “food component” does not make sense to me, because it’s reactions that involve responses, not food components.
    – tchrist
    Jul 26, 2012 at 11:36

The question asks for the subject of the sentence

Food allergies are adverse reactions to an otherwise harmless food or food component that involves an abnormal response of the body's immune system to specific protein(s) in foods

The subject of this sentence is Food allergies, which is a plural noun phrase, and agrees with the verb are, which is also plural.

However, the rest of the question appears to refer to the relative clause

that involves an abnormal response of the body's immune system to specific protein(s) in foods

which follows and modifies the noun component. This is not the main clause, and is not a sentence. However, it is a clause and it has a subject.

The subject is that; as a relative pronoun, it can be singular or plural, depending on its antecedent. In this case, the antecedent of that is component, which is singular, and agrees with the singular verb involves.

You have to distinguish clauses from one another before you can talk about sentences usefully.

  • 4
    You seem to be happy to accept that involves as referencing an otherwise harmless food or food component. I can see that grammatically that's the only plausible option, but semantically I can't make sense of it. What could it possibly mean to speak of a "harmless food" involving an "abnormal reaction"? I'm sure the writer actually meant to be referencing food allergies, since obviously they are indeed things which involve "an abnormal response which blah blah". In short, OP's citation seems clumsy, verbose, and ungrammatical to me. Jul 26, 2012 at 4:27
  • 1
    I didn't say it wasn't; almost all the questions and example sentences posted here are clumsy, verbose, and ungrammatical. Nothing new there. But they asked about the grammar. Jul 26, 2012 at 4:37
  • Fair enough. Having looked at the other answers, and reconsidered the question itself, I think it's just an example of bad writing. It's not worth picking out one "interpretation" over another - the whole sentence is so tortuous it's hard to nail down exactly what the writer intended. But it's nothing anywhere near as complex or erudite as the phrasing implies, I think. Jul 26, 2012 at 4:53
  • 2
    I appreciate your knowledge, and your answers are always very erudite. Still, you frequently come through as if you were delivering a lecture at university. Is it really so difficult to avoid being condescending in your replies? Most people writing here are doing their best, and do not need to be "scolded" as you seem to do for example in the last sentence of your above answer, a needless addendum in my opinion.
    – Paola
    Jul 26, 2012 at 8:13
  • 1
    "that involves" is establishing a restrictive condtion on "adverse reactions (to an otherwise harmless food or food component)" and as such should match the reactions which is plural.
    – Wudang
    Jul 26, 2012 at 12:30

The subject is reactions. Should read: “… that involve …”. It is the reactions that involve the abnormal responses.


[1] Food allergies are adverse reactions to an otherwise harmless food or food component that involves an abnormal response of the body's immune system to specific protein(s) in foods.

remove all adjectives and adverbs:

[2] Allergies are reactions to a food or component that involves a response.

"to a food or component" is a preposition that modifies "reactions", so remove it.

[3] Allergies are reactions that involves a response.

What is the subject of "involves a response"? ---> "that" "That" is a relative pronoun. The antecedent is "reactions".

This creates the clause "reactions involves and response" which has incorrect subject/verb agreement.

"That involves a response" is a clause, so remove it.

final sentence --> "Allergies are reactions".

  • The given conjugation ("involves") requires a singular subject.
  • The construction being used here is "<actor> that <action being performed>".

Given these two points, person 3 is correct.


If "involves" in British English means "evokes or causes", then the sentence is grammatically and biologically correct. If this is a paper intended for a broad audience (i.e., a medical journal) the language should be "more standard" to avoid ambiguity. I think if "evokes" had been used it would not be ambiguous.


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