Here's a quote from a CNN transcript, wherein a consumer psychologist says the following: "What is relatively new are shoppers turning on other shoppers."

If "what is relatively new" were the subject, she would have said "is" as opposed to "are". Hence, it's an inversion having "shoppers" as the subject. Am I right?

If I'm right, then the question: why use an inversion in this particular case? Specifically, why use "are" instead of "is"?

For the whole transcript, see: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1211/22/cnr.03.html

I did some follow-up research on what-cleft construction and would like to update my question by adding the following:

Swan says in Practical English Usage at 130, "A what-clause is normally considered to be singular...a plural verb is sometimes possible before a plural noun in an informal style." And Swan shows this example: "What we want is/are some of those cakes." (Emphasis in original.)

According to Swan, therefore, both "is" and "are" are possible, correct English in his "cakes" example. Also, he states that "are" is an informal style, which means that "is" is more formal.

Do you guys agree with this and is this applicable to my CNN example as well?

2 Answers 2


This is an example of ‘clefting’, described in the ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ as a sentence in which ‘the information that could be given in a single simple clause . . . is broken into two clauses, each with its own verb.’ More specifically, it’s a wh- cleft, and wh- clefts ‘have a double emphasis: they give some emphasis to the opening nominal clause as well as to the element in final position.’

‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ asks whether in such sentences the verb in the clause after the be clause can be in the plural, and gives a very clear answer: ‘Yes, and in fact it should be, if its subject is plural’. In an uncleft version, the sentence would be ‘New shoppers turning on other shoppers are new’. That is admittedly an unlikely sentence for anyone to say, but it does make it clear that the sentence concerns several shoppers and not just one.

  • So you're saying that it's a cleft sentence and an inversion as well, right? And would it render the sentence ungrammatical to replace 'are' with 'is'?
    – JK2
    Nov 23, 2012 at 9:03
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    It’s probably best to avoid the term ‘inversion’ altogether here, because it’s a term used to describe other features of grammar, and because ‘cleft’ is more descriptive. You might want to justify singular agreement on the ground that what stands for the thing that, but, in addition to the argument already given, I think the case for the proximity agreement of are overrides any case for the formal agreement of is. Others may think differently. Nov 23, 2012 at 9:27
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    I can see "Shoppers turning on other shoppers are savage", because "savage" describes the shoppers, and "Shoppers turning on other shoppers is savage", because "savage" describes the phenomenon, but "new" in "Shoppers turning on other shoppers is new" describes the phenomenon, which makes "Shoppers turning on other shoppers are new" quite ungrammatical, IMHO: it has to be "Shoppers who turn on other shoppers are {new shoppers / a new breed}".
    – user21497
    Nov 23, 2012 at 10:25
  • I can no longer see something called cleft without thinking of Poul Anderson’s “Uncleftish Beholding”. If you haven’t read it, you surely should. “With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life..The firststuffs have their being as motes called unclefts. These are mightly small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts.”
    – tchrist
    Nov 23, 2012 at 13:41
  • @Bill: Theoretically and logically, I agree with you. But English, like any other natural language, is not always logical. If it were, we would not be having this discussion in the first place. The real issue, it seems to me, is whether normal speakers of English would adhere to this "correctness" in everyday life. If they don't, what's the use of arguing which one is "logically more correct"?
    – JK2
    Nov 26, 2012 at 11:03

On CNN, a spoken medium, this is acceptable, or at least accepted. But if you wrote a similar sentence in a formal essay such as an academic paper it would not be.

The example you cite from Swan, What we want is/are some of those cakes, is not precisely parallel with the CNN quote. In the Swan example the user waffles understandably between having the verb agree with its subject, what (singular), and having it agree with its object, some of those cakes (plural). Substitute a pronoun for the object, and the ambiguity is patent:

What we want is/are those.

This is not so with your original example, from CNN. There both the subject and the object are singular, as Bill Franke remarks: it is not the shoppers which are new but their turning on each other. Again, substitute a pronoun:

What is new is that.

The CNN writer has allowed the plural subject of the object clause to infect the adjacent verb.

  • So do you at least agree with Barrie that the CNN example should be treated as what-cleft construction, not a simple inversion? Do you also agree that both the CNN and the Swan examples are in cleft construction and should be analyzed with a single coherent principle, whatever that may be?
    – JK2
    Nov 26, 2012 at 3:14
  • @user27275 The term was new to me, but now that I've had a chance to look it up, these are what Huddleston here,[64],viii* calls "pseudo-cleft" constructions, which he distinguishes from "cleft" constructions. My guess is that these variations in terminology represents evolving analyses. Nov 27, 2012 at 23:57
  • So your analysis above is done without considering "what-cleft". So in your opinion, "What we want are those" is an inversion with "those" being the subject, whereas "What we want is those" has "what we want" as its subject. Right?
    – JK2
    Nov 28, 2012 at 5:42
  • @user27275 Nope. They’re all clefts, or Wh-clefts, or pseudo-clefts, whatever you name them; there’s no inversion. But they foreground different elements. (1): We want [X,plural]What we want is/are [X,plural], as against (2): [X,singular] is newWhat is new is [X,singular]. What’s tripping you up is that in (2), [X,singular] is the phrase [A turning on B]. It’s irrelevant whether A (or B) is singular or plural, the entire phrase is what’s in question, and that’s singular. Nov 28, 2012 at 7:32
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    @user27275 Yes, in formal writing, the subject governs the number of the copula. In ordinary speech, however, "what" is not so strongly marked for number, so the copula can take the number of the complement if it feels better. But in your case, the complement is "shoppers turning on shoppers" which is a singular fact, so there's no conflict: "What is new is this fact." Nov 28, 2012 at 13:33

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