'What she enjoys is dictionaries' or 'What she enjoys are dictionaries'?

In a recent Twitter poll,  Ellen Jovin, grammar expert and author of the forthcoming book “Rebel Without a Clause, asked followers to choose between “What she enjoys is dictionaries” and “What she enjoys are dictionaries.” Exactly 42.9% of respondents chose “is” and 42.9% chose “are.” Just 11.9% chose “could be either.”

If you’re ever taking a multiple choice quiz about grammar and find yourself stumped, “could be either” is usually a good guess. English is flexible. There’s often more than one way to say something grammatically. Plus, even constructions that defy the rules of grammar, like “aren’t I” in place of “amn’t I,” can be idiomatic, which makes them acceptable.

So if you guessed “could be either” for Jovin’s question, you would be right. But what if you don’t want to guess? What if you want to understand how that sentence works?

I usually start with a dictionary. Among its many definitions of “what,” Merriam-Webster’s includes “the thing or things that.” This means “what” can be singular or plural, so it can take a single or plural verb depending on the predicate noun: “What is kombucha” is right, and so is “What are fava beans”?

But in Jovin’s sentence, it’s not quite that simple because “what” isn’t the subject of the sentence. A whole clause is: “what she enjoys.”

So is our subject, “what she enjoys,” singular or plural? Neither, exactly. But whether you should treat it as singular or plural mostly depends on whether “what” refers to something singular or plural. In Jovin’s sentence, the “what” means “dictionaries” — that’s the noun in the predicate to which “what” refers.

“When the ‘what’ in the what-clause is the object of the clause and when the predicate noun following the main verb is plural, it tends to pull the verb with it,” explains Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

So because “dictionaries” is the predicate noun in Jovin’s sentence and because it’s plural, the sentence is best with the plural verb “are”: What she enjoys are dictionaries.

There are other variations on these sentences, which I write about in my recent column.

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