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My student today asked me why we say "what is your name?" instead of "what are your name?".

I think we should say "what are your name?" since your/her takes "are"!

Please explain. Thank you in advance.

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'your name' is singular, that's why is. –  Ramit Feb 24 at 11:35
You could show your student what is the main word in the phrase "your name", and then ask her which one is correct *"What are the name?" or "What is the name (of yours)?" –  Damkerng T. Feb 24 at 11:43

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

After thinking it through, I think the best response of the teacher (you!) for this particular student once he or she asked,

I think we should say "what are your name?" since your/her takes "are"!

is probably,

Because name takes "is"!

And if he or she looked confused, then you could add,

It's because name takes "is", so you should say, "What is your name?", or "What are your names?".

If your course is about conversational English and it doesn't emphasize grammar, perhaps this is the best way to go, in my opinion. There is no grammar terminology in the reply. (Please note that I avoided even using the word "either" intentionally.)

  • My point is your reply should match your student. It's obvious that this student understands the word take, and he or she could formulate questions and at least understand simple answers, and yet still couldn't tell which word is the main word of a phrase, indicating his or her unclear understanding on common English sentence structures.

However, if your course also includes grammar, then you can take it as a good opportunity to discuss with your student(s) the concept of singular vs. plural in English, and the possessive form of you (which is your) and other pronouns, and how to find the main word in a noun phrase, and sentence structures in English, and so on.

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since your/her takes are!!!!

I think this is an example of students having learned some "rules" by heart which aren't rules.

Your is the possessive of you, and you can be singular or plural.

The main point is that the subject of the verb is name, or if you address multiple people, names

If you are addressing a single person, you can say:

What is your name?

If you are asking a group of people to give their names, you ask:

What are your names?

But the conclusion that "your" takes "are" is absurdly and wrongly oversimplified.

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I think this answer could be improved by clarifying that the subject of the sentence is "your name", and not "you", as mentioned in The Spooniest's answer. Alternatively, are there rules relating to copulas which may be relevant here? –  Steve Melnikoff Feb 24 at 14:15
This is not the reason; as others have pointed out, the verb "is" goes with "name", not "your". The person's name is singular, so we use "is". So the word "name" should be the word in bold in your examples, not "your". –  Chelonian Feb 24 at 17:47
Fair point, I will edit my answer :) –  oerkelens Feb 24 at 21:11

"Who are you?" would be correct, because "you" is the subject of the sentence. But "What is your name?" is different: "Name" is the subject of that sentence. It is modified by the adjective "your", but that doesn't change the subject.

Because of that, your student is correct. The sentence you mentioned is talking about the person's name, not the actual person. That's what makes the difference.

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In “who are you?”, isn't “you” is the object of the sentence, rather than the subject? –  Emmet Feb 24 at 14:25
@Emmet No. Who is a fronted interrogative phrase (from "Are you ___?"). You is the subject, and it has undergone subject-auxiliary inversion with are. And as you can see from "Who is he?" versus "Who are they?", are agrees with the inverted subject. –  snailboat Feb 24 at 14:49

No. "What IS your name?" is correct.

The subject of the sentence is not "you", but "name". "Name" is singular.

A common error in English is to confuse the subject of the sentence with modifiers on that subject when selecting the appropriate verb. For example: RIGHT: "The girl with the cats is here." WRONG: "The girl with the cats are here." "Cats" is plural, so if "cats" was the subject of the sentence, the correct verb would be "are". But "cats" is not the subject of the sentence. The subject is "girl", which is singular. So the correct verb is "is".

Similar thing here. "Your" is not the subject of the sentence. It is an adjective modifying "name".

This case is a little easier than my example because "your" is an adjective, not a noun, and so can never be the subject of a sentence. (Unless you are talking about the word itself.) You might say "You are ...", but you would never say "Your are ...". It must always be "Your X is/are ...", where X is a noun. (Or some more complex sentence, of course.)

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To expand on this a bit: "the girl with the cats that are here" and "the girl with the cats who is here" are both correct. In the first case, here refers to the cats, in the second to the girl. –  BobRodes Feb 24 at 16:54
@BobRodes True, but neither of those is a complete sentence. But yes, you could say, "The girl with the cats who are here is Irish", meaning that the cats are here and the girl is Irish. Note if it was only one cat the sentence becomes ambiguous: "The girl with the cat who is here is Irish." Is the girl here, or is the cat here? Changing it to "The girl who is here with the cat is Irish" may change the meaning, as that indicates that both she and the cat are here, which may not be what was intended. –  Jay Feb 24 at 17:11
Yes, they were not intended to be examples of complete sentences, rather of correct usage, which as we both agree they are. Note that if it were only one cat the sentence would become ambiguous only to those who refer to a cat as a "who" rather than as a "that"; in other words, the sort of person who refers to himself as "Daddy" when addressing his cat. I don't mean to suggest that you do this, and if you do, of course you are free to do so. However, since I don't hold with personification of animals (I'm sure they don't like it), I treat such as incorrect. :) –  BobRodes Feb 24 at 20:16
Well, yeah, the who/that distinction might help in this example. But I can easily frame examples where that doesn't help, like, "The girl with the brother who is here is ..." And BTW, I do not have any pets, and if I did, I can't imagine referring to myself as their "daddy". If an animal isn't edible, I'm not really interested in it. –  Jay Feb 25 at 17:57
<But I can easily frame examples... Well, so can I! LOL This just isn't one of them. So yes, I was taking advantage of the who/that distinction as you aptly put it. And clearly we are on the same page with the personification of animals thing. I wouldn't carry a Chihuahua around wherever I went and knit sweaters for it either. But some folks do, and I'm sure they have their reasons. –  BobRodes Feb 26 at 14:07

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