In the following sentence, the verb “are” strikes me as odd.

In paragraph 6, it is not clear what are meant by “the front unit” and “the central element”.

It seems that “. . . it is not clear what is meant by . . .” would be more natural.

However, thinking more about it and flipping the sentence around yields something like:

“the front unit” and “the central element” mean what?

So, it seems that logically the verb should actually be “are”?

What is going on here? Is the plural correct (are)? Or is there actually some other subject in the original sentence, and therefore “is”.

  • 1
    Very curious proofreading! I've tentatively reformatted. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 21 '12 at 23:21
  • As others note - "are" is not strictly incorrect but is less usual. "are" here refers to a number of examples whose meanings are all not understood as items in their own right. If we are considering a general lack of meaning as the subject then 'is' is appropriate and leads to the common "is meant by". If we consider that we have a number of subjects which could have been referred to in turn but which are instead being referred to collectively then the "are" is acceptable. --> It is not clear what is meant by the FU and it is not clear what is meant by the CE and it is ... – Russell McMahon Oct 22 '12 at 4:30

You are correct: it should be is. The writer perhaps mistakenly treated by “the front unit” and “the central element” as the subject, which in fact is singular what. The by phrase is an adverbial constituent of instrument or similar.

Now it could be argued that what should be plural in this clause, which is in theory possible. However, it could just as well be analysed as singular: the clause could be considered elliptical, where parts have been omitted for brevity, as it is normally done:

In paragraph 6, it is not clear what is meant by x and [what is meant] by y.

Moreover, the phrase what is meant is almost universally used in the singular and could be said to be idiomatically fixed. The plural sounds odd to my ears.

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  • +1 Yes, but you have no documentation. I've provided some in my answer. I think it's both idiomatically fixed and that what is singular in this case. Your spectral evidence seems to bear this out. I've always contended that Linguistics is not science, but that it does use the scientific method. – user21497 Oct 22 '12 at 0:47
  • @BillFranke: What is spectral evidence? I'm not a spectre: I'm a hell hound! – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Oct 22 '12 at 0:54
  • 1
    Spectral evidence is the underlying structure of the sentence that has been elided. Like all spectres, it isn't visible, but it is believed to be there nonetheless. (Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures [He didn't say that, but the book is all about the underlying spectres of elided and transformed surface structures]. Cf. phlogiston theory link – user21497 Oct 22 '12 at 1:02
  • @BillFranke: I'm sorry, but I'm not a huge fan of Chomsky's when it comes to stylistic advice. These "spectres" have a part to play in matters of style. I hope I'm not sounding too pompous. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Oct 22 '12 at 1:05
  • No, not at all. My point is only that there are often many different possible underlying structures for a single surface structure. – user21497 Oct 22 '12 at 1:15

I won't argue with StoneyB's and your analyses of why the verb should be "are" instead of "is", or your feeling that "what is meant" sounds more natural, but I will say that Fowler would probably advise the writer to recast the sentence so that it isn't such a bad one. It's "bad" because it draws attention to itself, not because it's ungrammatical. Grammaticality is a poor basis for choosing how a sentence should be written when the result is such a sore thumb.

In paragraph 6, it is not clear what “the front unit” and “the central element” mean.

This is much better and two words shorter.

In paragraph 6, what “the front unit” and “the central element” mean is not clear .

This is much better than the original and three words shorter. And it suggests that it might be possible to say

In paragraph 6, it is not clear what is meant by “the front unit” and “the central element”.

I'm sure that Huddleston and Pullum would rush to its defense as a standard and acceptable sentence. I'm not sure that I wouldn't agree in this case.

MWDEU (p. 58) says:

"Mixed usage occurs when the subject what in the clause is singular but the predicate nominative is plural. In such cases, the main verb tends to be plural":

"What bothers Professor Teeter most are the guesses, hunches, speculations, and fancies in which many language shamans like me indulge -- Safire 1984".


"What is most striking about Johnson is the vigor of his ideas, the variety of his knowledge, the forcefulness of his conversation -- J. C. Mendenhall, English Literature, 1650-1800, 1940 (in Bryant)".

I'd say that the structure of the original sentence is different from Safire's: no plural noun phrases immediately after the verb, but a past participle (meant), which, we now know, is always an adjective.

In paragraph 6, it is not clear what the meanings of “the front unit” and “the central element” are.

is perfectly grammatical and unexceptional. I'm not sure, however, that this can be said of

In paragraph 6, it is not clear what are meant by “the front units” and “the central elements”.

Google Ngrams Viewer shows that "is meant by the terms" is and has been used significantly more than "are meant by the terms" (almost zilch) [Only 5 words allowed for an Ngram search].

I conclude that the sentence should be:

In paragraph 6, it is not clear what is meant by “the front units” and “the central elements”.

simply because of the syntax: It's not typical and it seems to require a special usage rule.

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I think you've already pinned down why this is correct:

What do [not does] “the front unit” and “the central element” mean?

“The front unit” means one thing, and “the central element” means something else.

Does or is would imply that “the front unit” and “the central element” are a single collocation with a single meaning.

So the statement must be cast in the plural.

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