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The first thing I can see in this picture are 2 people

I happened to see this sentence, and it says using 'is' instead of 'are' is wrong.

As I looked up some grammar stuff, you can invert the complement if it is not a noun but an adjective or an adverb.
Also the subject “the first thing” does not seem to be a sort of unit such as 2 inches as in

“2 inches is not that long.”

So I would like to ask why and how the verb should be 'are', not 'is'. Thank you.

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You seem to be overthinking this. What is the subject of the following sentence? What is the verb?

  • The first thing I can see in this picture are 2 people.

(Hint: I made them bold.) With a singular subject you need a singular verb. Thus, is should be used instead of are.

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I would opine that many native speakers would say

In this picture I can see two people.

There is no need to start with a list, The first thing... especially if the photo is detailed, but the OP wants to know if using the plural verb in this instance is grammatical or not

The first thing [that] I can see {in this picture} are 2 people

If we take away the th-words (that, this, there) we are left with

WRONG: The first thing I can see are two people

Although it doesn't sound wrong because the verb agrees with the predicate plural noun, two people; it disagrees with the subject of the sentence which is "The first thing". In fact, it follows the standard Subject Verb Object (SVO) order

CORRECT: The first thing I can see is two people

The plural "two people" after the singular verb makes it sound a bit strange even though "two people" is not the subject of the verb. But verbs MUST agree with their subject.

  1. “The first thing” is a noun phrase which is the subject
    “[that] I can see” is a reduced relative clause

(Since the relative clause has a subject (I) already, the relative word, that, is unnecessary and may be omitted.)

  1. “in this picture” is a prepositional phrase, and it is the complement of the verb "see". The verb “be” is the copula or linking verb.
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