1. What is Mr. X and his father doing?

  2. What are Mr. X and his father doing?

Which one of the above is correct?

My friend says that both are acceptable in accordance with the context in which they are use d.

In informal occasions, especially when we know both the subjects are doing the same work together, we can ask the question as in sentence 1. But in formal occasions, and when we know that they are doing two different things, we ask the question as in the sentence 2.

Is my friend correct?

  • Both can be correct. The first example can be understood as: What is Mr. X and [what is] his father doing?, that is, the omission of what is to simplify and avoid repetition, and the second is ok as is. – Lucian Sava Jul 6 '19 at 11:28
  • @LucianSava Do you mean the first question cleft at the beginning and joined at the end on doing? Is it grammatically acceptable? – mahmud k pukayoor Jul 6 '19 at 12:27

Your friend is mistaken.

The subject here is "Mr. X and his father", which is plural, so the correct verb to use is "are".

Of course there's a compound noun that takes a singular verb such as "bread and butter". But this is not the case here. "Mr X and his father" is not normally conceptualized as a single unit.

  • What is the joint action taken by Mr. X and his father? Only in that particular construction could the singular verb be used. This may be the meaning meant by the friend. But this is only possible because the sentence has been rewritten. – Jason Bassford Jul 6 '19 at 15:10
  • @JasonBassford Yes. In that case the subject is "the joint action taken by Mr. X and his father". Since the head noun "action" is singular, the singular verb is required. – user178049 Jul 6 '19 at 15:35
  • @JasonBassford , What's meant by a joint action? Mr. X and his father are/is trying to lift a heavy box. Isn't it a joint action? What should be the verb here, is or are ? – mahmud k pukayoor Jul 7 '19 at 14:57
  • @mahmudkoya There is a difference between syntax and semantics. In the joint action, it's the specific words themselves that are the subject—not the meaning behind them (which could be expressed with different words). While it's true that two people doing something together are taking a joint action, if you don't use those exact words in that exact construction, the grammar of the sentence itself will be different. – Jason Bassford Jul 7 '19 at 16:25

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