Two guys meet each other at night and one of them shows the other a box where there are three guns. Then a police officer appears and asks:

What is in the box?

Can the guy whom was shown the box whisper to his pal

Don't show him what are in the box! ?

I read that if we knew or presupposed about something that was plural we could say sentences like that with plural forms or verbs. This way the police officer doesn't know anything about the singular/plural form of what is in the box. Therefore he uses "is". However, the boys knowing the amount of the guns is three use "are". Am I right?

P.S. If he can, will it be wrong if he still says:

Don't show him what is in the box! ?


1 Answer 1


"... what is in the box"

This part of the sentence is called a noun clause. If you google noun clauses and singular/plural, you can find a wide variety of explanations for why the verb should be singular or plural.

In my opinion, what as a question or as a subject pronoun in a noun clause should be followed by a singular verb, unless the immediate context (ie other words in the same sentence) make it necessary to use a plural verb. So, we say

I know what is in the cupboard

even though everybody knows that there are many things in the cupboard, but we say

I know what books are in the cupboard.

because books forces us to use a plural.

  • Can we say that using "are" in my sentence is equal to saying "There'S a lot of PEOPLE here" and "I KNEW that you ARE working here"? I mean it's like slang or it's closer to being really ungrammatical than even informal? Jun 4, 2020 at 15:24
  • 1
    In "Don't show him [what is in the box]" the bracketed element is actually a noun phrase, not a clause. In "I know [what books are in the cupboard]" and "I know [what is in the cupboard]", the bracketed elements are subordinate interrogative clauses (embedded questions).
    – BillJ
    Jun 4, 2020 at 15:53
  • @MichaelAzarenko slang, informal and ungrammatical are related but distinct properties, and they are not mutually exclusive. slang is specific to a particular group of people, informal is the kind of language that everybody uses with friends, and ungrammatical is simply wrong. I would say that "there's a lot of people here" is informal, and ungrammatical. "I knew that you are working here" is neither informal or ungrammatical. "Don't show him what are in the box!" is not informal but is ungrammatical.
    – JavaLatte
    Jun 5, 2020 at 3:49

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