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Whenever I enter his house the first thing I notice (is/are) the big lamps.

Verb "to be" is connected to two key words: thing and lamps.

And this appears to be the problem. The sentence implies that "thing = the lamps"; but one is singular, whereas the other is plural. Both "is" and "are" seem to make sense, but at the same time it feels like they don't make any sense at all.

Let's remove unnecessary words of the sentence so that we are left with:

the thing (is/are) the lamps

If we put "is" there, it doesn't seem right, because of "the lamps is"

If we put "are" there, we get "the thing are"; again: gibberish

Which is correct? Is either correct?

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    "Thing" is singular, so the verb must be singular too. Incidentally, there's nothing unusual about a predicative and a predicand differing in number, cf. "The only thing we need now is some new curtains". The reverse can occur too, cf. "Our neighbours are a nuisance" where the predicand "neighbours" is plural (hence the plural verb), but the predicative "nuisance" is singular. – BillJ Jul 27 '17 at 9:47
  • Don't get too hung up with superficial logic concerning singular "thing" and the plural verb form "were". Google Books claims to have 1,730 written instances of the first thing I saw were. It's true there are far more instances of the first thing I saw was, but most of those would be followed by some obviously singular "thing seen". If the thing seen was more naturally referenced as a plurality, most native speakers would be quite happy to base the verb choice on that (even more so in speech). – FumbleFingers Jul 27 '17 at 13:13
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Normally the verb follows the subject. Thing is singular "The thing is the lamps" is correct.

BillJ notes: there's nothing unusual about a predicative and a predicand differing in number, cf. "The only thing we need now is some new curtains". The reverse can occur too, cf. "Our neighbours are a nuisance" where the predicand "neighbours" is plural (hence the plural verb), but the predicative "nuisance" is singular.

On the other hand, Fumblefingers observes that: Google Books claims to have 1,730 written instances of the first thing I saw were. It's true there are far more instances of the first thing I saw was, but most of those would be followed by some obviously singular "thing seen". If the thing seen was more naturally referenced as a plurality, most native speakers would be quite happy to base the verb choice on that (even more so in speech).

To summarise, Both "the first thing I noticed is the big lamps." and "the first thing I notice are the big lamps." are both correct English.

  • You inconsistently changed the tense from the OP's example. It should be "... the first thing I notice is the big lamps" – JavaLatte Feb 15 '18 at 14:26

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