I came across this sentence in Barron's "504 essential words" book:

We hardly ever believed Vinny because what he said was usually fiction.

but I guess the correct form should be something like this:

We hardly ever believed Vinny because what he said were usually fictions.

Am I wrong? Or both are correct?


4 Answers 4


The first sentence is correct:

We hardly ever believed Vinny because what he said was usually fiction.

You probably feel that what refers to the things he said which seems like a plural countable noun phrase.

But we can also think of it as singular, such as the set of all the things he said or the typical thing he said.

How do you feel about They sometimes met in the daytime, but when they usually met it was night?

Or What their meetings seemed like to him was a waste of time?

Those are similar ways of naming groups or collections of things with singular nouns.

Your second example is grammatical, but probably less common or natural in this context.

  • Yes, fiction here is the best choice. As opposed to: science or philosophy. The noun form is best. 2) is grammatical but not said.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 21:31

In this case, I think your version reads more awkwardly, because “fiction” usually gets treated as a mass noun. Barron’s has it right.

However, we could tweak your version and get something that sounds okay:

We hardly ever believed Vinny because the things he said were usually fictitious.

By changing “what he said” to “the things he said”, we can use a plural verb. And by changing the noun fiction to the adjective fictitious, the end of the sentence works, too.

  • Hmm . . . We both recognize what's correct/standard/conventional, but as so often is the case with grammar, we have slightly different explanations. In support of yours, I think of something like What she usually drank was milk. If it was milks, we'd think it meant different kinds (countable noun). My mind went to how we conceptualize the thing/s represented by what as a pronoun. Interesting. I can't quite wrap my mind around the issue! Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 11:27
  • I just cannot imagine saying: the thing he said were fictitious. Maybe: his explanations were fictitious.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 21:32
  • @Lambie - I agree; my utterance would probably go more like this: We hardly ever believed Vinny because he lied all the time. (I was trying to stay as close to the original as I could yet make it sound more grammatical.) As unlikely as I might be to say, "usually fictitious," that's still easier to imagine myself saying than, "usually fictions."
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 21:35
  • Yes, I agree with that.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 21:36

Both are grammatical, but the first version is more appropriate and natural in this case..

"fiction" is usually used as a mass noun, referring to a collection of stories or statements that are not true.

However, it can be used as a singular noun, but it's usually done in a more restricted context. From Lexico

  1. Something that is invented or untrue.
    ‘they were supposed to be keeping up the fiction that they were happily married’
    2.1 A belief or statement which is false, but is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so.
    ‘the notion of the country being a democracy is a polite fiction’

Your second version is using "fictions" in this way, but the intent doesn't seem to include these nuances.

  • The explanation is good.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 21:32

Only the first sentence is correct because the subject clause "what he said" needs the singular form of the verb.

  • Even though we don't often hear fictions used in the plural, I thought your original answer had some useful examples. I liked your answer better before you cut away so much of it.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 14:16
  • I would have upvoted your original answer. (After seeing the above comment and looking at it.) Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 21:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .