Column

A Word, Please: Whether to say ‘is’ or ‘are’ can be a tricky ‘thing’

It happened again. I was driving down the street, minding my own business, when someone on the radio uttered a sentence that just begged to have a column written about it — a great real-world example of a common grammar problem.

And he said it just as I was trying to think of a topic for this week’s column.

Determined to commit the quotation to memory, I began repeating the example sentence over and over, mumbling like a crazy person all alone in the car for a full 5 miles.

Unfortunately, I had to drive 6 miles. In the final stretch, something shiny caught my eye.

By the time I was pulling into my parking space, not only had I forgotten the speaker’s words, I had forgotten I had been trying to remember something in the first place.

Here’s what the man on the radio most definitely did not say: “The most important thing of all as the holidays approach and we decorate our homes and wrap our gifts are family and friends.”

The commentator wasn’t actually talking about the holidays. He was talking about the state budget or immigration or possibly something to do with Time Warner. The only word I’m certain he uttered is “are.”

That word is at the heart of not one but two grammar problems in this example sentence.

The first is called false attraction. That means you forgot which noun your verb is supposed to match, so you accidentally matched it with a verb closer to it in the sentence.

I’ll give you a simpler example, “My sisters, especially Diane, enjoys comedy.” That should be “enjoy,” because the subject of the clause is the plural “sisters,” not the singular “Diane.”

So my sisters enjoy, not Diane enjoys.

Simple examples aren’t ideal because, when it comes to false attraction, complexity itself is usually the culprit. The more nouns come between your subject and your verb, the more nouns can be mistaken for the subject.

Our first example began “The most important thing,” then came a bunch more words, then much later came the verb: are.

But without all the stuff in the middle, we can see that the subject “thing” takes the singular verb “is.” Hence the mistake.

But there’s another grammar issue in this sentence. It’s “family and friends.” Add that after our subject and verb you get: “The important thing is family and friends.”

Mathematically speaking, it’s odd to call family and friends a “thing” because this is clearly plural. But setting aside the meaning, what do you do when your subject is singular and its complement is plural, as in “The important thing is friends”?

Before we answer that, let’s look at a slightly different way to say it: “Most important are friends.”

Here, the verb is plural to go with the plural “friends.” This is correct, so it’s natural to assume that the verb in our previous example should have been plural, too.

But the situations are different. “Most important are friends” takes a simple declarative sentence, “Friends are most important,” and moves the adjective phrase to the beginning. Call it Yoda-speak: “Impatient you are.”

The working parts are all the same, though. The subject is still “friends,” even though it’s not at the beginning of the sentence. “Most important are friends” is grammatically correct.

When you throw a noun like “thing” into the mix, the structure changes: “The most important thing is friends” does not have “friends” as the subject of the verb.

In this sentence, the subject is “thing,” with the word “friends” serving as something called a complement of the copular verb.

So “The most important thing is friends” is correct because singular “thing” is the subject and, therefore, the verb should be singular, too.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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