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In this sentence, which is the right word?

The only thing that I want you to hit right now is/are the books.

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Not sure why there are so many answers given to this question. Isn't this just similar with "the only thing 'is' you/them"? You wouldn't say "the only thing 'are' you/them." That's all the question asks for...? –  user76935 Jul 17 at 21:18

10 Answers 10

up vote 27 down vote accepted

The verb always follows the subject, and the Subject here is "The only thing" (singular). Because of that, the correct verb is "is", regardless of whatever comes after the verb.

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Agreed. Effectively, "the books" in this case becomes a composite singular, referring to a single group of books. –  keshlam Jul 14 at 23:21
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"The verb always follows the subject, . . ." -- Except that the verb doesn't necessarily always follow the subject. –  F.E. Jul 15 at 5:51
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But that example is ungrammatical… –  snailboat Jul 15 at 16:32
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@ANeves I probably should have done that. :) Here are some examples using subject-auxiliary and subject-dependent inversions: "Where is the auditor's report?", "More damaging is the auditor's report.", "How often had he regretted his impetuosity!", "So cold had it been that they had called off the match", "How ungracious had been their response!", "So wet had been the pitch that they'd abandoned play." (CGEL pg 97); "Had I had any inkling of this, I would have acted differently.", "Were that to happen we would be in a very difficult situation." (pg 753) –  F.E. Jul 16 at 0:21
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@CoolHandLouis Except that a plural verb is not acceptable in the example that I gave; this is because the predicative complement is a singular noun phrase. That is: * "Twenty dollars seem a ridiculous amount to pay to go to the movies" is ungrammatical. In that example, the measure override is obligatory. –  F.E. Jul 16 at 6:10

Short Answer

I'm going to provide support for a more moderate and, I believe, more accurate answer. This Short Answer section will give my fundamental position and the next Detailed Answer section will provide supporting details.

While most educational prescriptivist grammar texts (self-proclaimed "correct" grammars, including undergraduate and EFL/ESL texts) still mandate subject-verb agreement (which is a good rule for the vast majority of cases) the descriptivist ("linguistic, actual speech studies") view should not be totally discounted in this case. I think the OP's sentence is just about perfectly midway between the two extremes of agreeing with the grammatical subject vs. the logical subject. With the OP's sentence, both the plural and the singular form can (statistically) sound just fine to many native English speakers. In addition to the next Detailed Answer section, also see Bock and Miller's seminal paper on this phenomenon, "Broken Agreement" (Cognitive Psychology 23, 45-93, 1991).


Detailed Answer

First, @mohomad's answer is defensible prescriptively. But that defense is, at least in part, by definition because many prescriptive texts (especially older ones) prescribe it as so.1 This old rule is not absolute when one accounts for some descriptive linguistic scenarios. (See Difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar.) So let's review the prescriptive answer. The OP's sentence reduces to:

  • The thing is the books.

The reduced sentence makes the subject/complement plurality disagreement more obvious and even cognitively disconcerting. But given "a choice", the subject is obviously singular, and so should be the verb, as the following sentence demonstrates:

  • The thing I want is the books.

The above sentence is expanded with just enough semantics to eliminate much of the cognitive dissonance while retaining the natural grammatical agreement of subject and verb. But now consider the following sentences, in which the plural ("are") form can sound fine to many people:

Above, the plural word 'those' helps make the plural form of the verb sound much more natural.

This phenomenon is called proximity concord (aka proximity agreement) and is found in actual spoken and written English (even "slipping" into formal registers on occasion). When there's a plausible shift in plurality and the phrasing distances a copular verb (such as "to be") from the grammatical subject, the verb can sound more natural when matching the closer, logical subject. This phenomenon is more pronounced as the verb gets further from the grammatical subject, the verb gets closer to the subject complement, and any intermediary phrases include pluralities like 'those'. But this phenomenon can occur even with very short sentences:

In fact, Santorini and Kroch suggest both prescriptive and descriptive rules:

In a sentence containing both the singular expletive subject 'there' and a plural logical subject:

  • Prescriptive rule: The verb should agree in number with the logical subject.
  • Descriptive rule: The verb can agree in number with either the expletive subject or the logical subject. [Emphasis added by me. CoolHandLouis]

But the OP's sentence uses 'the books' instead of 'those books'. This has some balancing effect of nullifying the proximity concord effect. Ultimately, there will be individual preferences and, in fact, I have my own preference (unspoken); but that's not important here. I believe the sentence will (statistically) read fine to many native English speakers using either the plural or the singular--especially if unprompted regarding the issue of plurality.


1. Prescriptive texts should eventually (will eventually) be updated to better model language based on modern linguistic concepts, including notional concord and proximal concord in addition to the traditional grammatical concord. In the future, the current prescriptive argument ("VERB ALWAYS AGREES WITH SUBJECT!") will include the exceptions ("except when they don't").

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It doesn't sound much more natural to me, much otherwise. Maybe that's because I ain't no native speaker. (Languages not being static things makes them harder to master.) –  ANeves Jul 15 at 10:30
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Thank you. I agree with are. It is absolutely the verb I would say in this construction. –  CarSmack Jul 15 at 10:54
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@ANeves, based on your comment, you might find this interesting: The Collapse of Grammatical Rules under the Pressure of Semantic Content: Subject-Verb Concord by Ibrahim Al–Shaer (An-Najah Univ. J. Res., H. Sc., Vol. 19-1, 2005) Ibrahim Al-Shaer addresses two issues: (1) To what extent do native speakers follow the traditional grammar rules of concord? (2) What are the implications of such results for EFL teachers and learners? –  CoolHandLouis Jul 15 at 11:10
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As a native English speaker, I find are the books to flow more naturally (due to proximity). It's a tossup as to which (is or are) is more grammatically defensible. –  Phil Perry Jul 15 at 14:45
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You can clearly come up with examples that don't work, but the purported rule of subject-complement agreement can be trivially disproved by millions of Standard English sentences. Do you really object to sentences like The Great Lakes are a national treasure? Surely not. This suggests that the rule is different than simple number agreement between the subject and the complement. In contrast, number agreement between the subject and the verb is a widespread rule that accounts for the vast majority of English sentences correctly (though not all). –  snailboat Jul 20 at 10:49

The verb should be in agreement with the subject. This website has some examples.

Thus, the correct way to say it would be:

The only thing that I want you to hit right now is the books.

Also, if "the books" is the subject, then it would be:

The books are the only things that I want you to hit right now.

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Yes I agree with Eric. Here we are using "The only thing" which must be followed by "is". And also if you read a lot you might notice that "The only thing" is followed by "is".

Some examples could be:

"The only thing I want to hear from Iraq war architects is an apology". Harry Ried

"The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?" Source

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'Is', but I'd suggest making the entire sentence more grammatically pleasing...

The only things I want you to hit right now are the books

Following grammatical correctness is okay, but ensuring there is no possible way to argue that the sentence is grammatically incorrect is better. They'll be read/heard better by more people.

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Welcome to Stack Exchange Nathan! I see you're a new user. I think one might assume in this case it's conversational, something like, Son: "Dad I want to go hit the weights." Father: "The only thing I want you to hit right now is/are the books!" To me, saying things seems to soften the phrasing too much and wouldn't be used IRL. –  CoolHandLouis Jul 15 at 12:28
    
@CoolHandLouis, I dunno - this is exactly what I'd say in this scenario (and what I was going to put in an answer). Making "thing" plural doesn't meaningfully undercut the parallel structure with "the weights," but does allow for proper subject-verb agreement. –  Jaydles Jul 16 at 0:31
    
@Jaydles, Ok I stand corrected. (I should know better than to say, "something wouldn't be said IRL".) But my main point is that conversational language is not about "ensuring there's no possible way to argue that the sentence is grammatically incorrect". My point is more along the lines that it's absolutely plausible for native speakers to use proximity concord in this situation, despite any so-called grammatical error that might introduce. –  CoolHandLouis Jul 16 at 1:01

Most English speakers accept the use of "to be" to equate a singular with a plural.

So, if you're sure that you want to equate "the books" (plural) with "the only thing" (singular), then you'd say "The only thing I want you to hit right now is the books".

Or with subject and object the other way around, "The books are the only thing I want you to hit right now".

If you're pedantic, though, then the safe option is to change to "The only things I want you to hit right now are the books". This is clumsier, but easier to defend as "correct" because it avoids that singular/plural equality.

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I'd add that if OP is using this expression, s/he shouldn't be too concerned with correct grammar. This sentence would completely lose its effect if you try to make it formally grammatically correct. –  Tiercelet Jul 14 at 22:41
    
@Tiercelet: true. I can imagine a situation in which it would be right to say "the only things...", for example in response to someone saying, "I want to go hit some long passes on the football field, I'll study when I get back", or "Let me hit these mobsters in GTA". But it's a stretch ;-) –  Steve Jessop Jul 14 at 22:45
    
"The books" is not literally referring to more than one book, but rather to the idea of studying. More than one stream might be called "several brooks", but that doesn't make Garth Brooks - the name of one person - plural. Just as Garth Brooks is a washed-up country artist and a washed up country artist's name is Garth Brooks, "the books" in this very specific context is always singular. –  dannysauer Jul 15 at 1:01
    
Your switched sentence should be, "The books are the only things I want you to hit right now." No? Alternatively, according to notional concord ("agreement of verbs with their subjects based on author's intent rather than grammatical form"), one could say, "The books is the only thing I want you to hit right now." As such, you would be declaring the semantic intent that "the books" should be considered singular, as in the reference to "hitting the books" as an idiom. (See also, internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~jkbock/bockpubs/…) –  CoolHandLouis Jul 16 at 9:01
    
@CoolHandLouis: there is a switched version of the "pedantically cautious" sentence, and it is what you say it is. However, that's not the version of the sentence I was talking about. Of all the permutations, I think possibly the only one that's actually incorrect is "the only thing are the books". Anything else is just a question of which batch of pedants you choose to leave yourself open to ;-) For example, dannysauer rejects all plural versions for the reason he gives, that in his view "books" in this sense must (not merely may) be singular. –  Steve Jessop Jul 16 at 9:08

Ok, I must reiterate what another poster said. In this specific phrase, "the books" is not a physical set of "books" but the concept of studying, which is singular, so the correct verb would be "is".

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XelaYrag, Welcome to StackExchange! StackExchange is a little different than most "forums" that you might be familiar with. In the future (for stackexchange), please note that such a reiteration is better handled by an upvote on the other poster's answer, optionally with a comment should you want that upvote known. See help center for more info. –  CoolHandLouis Jul 15 at 21:19

actually "thing" should be changed to "things" to match the plurality of "books". So the question you pose has no answer because the original sentence is grammatically incorrect.

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+1 This is an excellent point: regardless of which verb is used, the original sentence is grammatically incorrect in terms of syntax (if one doesn't account for a notionally collective-noun interpretation of "the books"). –  CoolHandLouis Jul 20 at 0:55

Consider this sentence:

(1) People who are distracted while driving {are/*is} a big problem.

Clearly, the verb follows the subject. But:

(2) A big problem {is/are} people who are distracted while driving.

In the rearranged sentence, you have a choice of which verb to use; either choice is euphonic (sounds good).

The rules are not so clear-cut; for instance:

(3) You {are/is*} the one I want.

(4) The one I want {are/is*} you.

Also:

(5) Dangerous {*is/are} those who are distracted while driving.

This sentence (5) helps explain why (2) sounds good with either is or are. Example (2) is ambiguous. It can be seen as a rearrangement of a sentence whose subject is people, and it can also be seen as a sentence in plain form whose subject is a big problem. In (5) there is no ambiguity because dangerous is an adjective and so it cannot be regarded as a subject; the subject is those, and so the choice of verb is restricted to are.

The underlying rule seems to be that the plurality of the verb goes with the subject; however, identifying what is the subject can be ambiguous.

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To be grammatically correct, you would want to make the conjugated form of the verb "to be" agrees with "thing(s)" and "book(s)." The sentence will then be "The only things that I want you to hit are the books."

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