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I always get a little confused when it comes to a plural that becomes a singular, as the example below. Which is correct?

  1. The health risks associated with smoking as an intake method, however, are still a subject up for debate

Or

  1. The health risks associated with smoking as an intake method, however, is still a subject up for debate

What is the general rule so that I will have a better idea in the future?

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  • We can't sensibly make 'associated with smoking as an intake method' into a pre-modifier, which is where adjectives like to be placed. But let's bend the rules a bit (sometimes one does meet these 'stacked premodifiers' in quirky writing / speech). We'd get << The associated-with-smoking-as-an-intake-method health risks, however, are still a subject up for debate. >> The health risks are ... (Note that the fact that the complement is singular, 'an up-for-debate subject', the (grammatical) subject, not the complement, determines the verb form.) – Edwin Ashworth Feb 22 at 16:59
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    The general rule is with a plural noun subject (such as risks, here) you need a plural verb form (so it's are, not is in the cited context). – FumbleFingers Feb 22 at 17:04
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The first one is correct, the one with the plural verb (are).

The general rule is that you need to locate the head of the subject. What is 'still a subject up for debate'? Is it 'an intake method'? No. Is it 'smoking'? No. It's 'the health risks'. Thus, the head is risks. It is plural, so you need plural agreement.

Sometimes in English there can be singular or plural overrides, but this is not one of those times. For more on overrides, see the 'Discussion' section of this answer of mine.

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  • Unhelpful in that it encourages other similar questions of ELL standard. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 22 at 16:19
  • @EdwinAshworth Fair enough. Hopefully, someone who can migrate it, will. – linguisticturn Feb 22 at 16:20
  • I'll hopefully be back there to remove the downvote. // There are two CV-reasons that recommend such a migration. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 22 at 16:24
  • @EdwinAshworth Yes—and one of them is mine! – linguisticturn Feb 22 at 16:26
  • I very rarely CV and also answer using an 'answer'. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 22 at 16:28
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In a "subject is complement" sentence, it is possible for the subject to be singular but the complement to be plural

These potatoes are my dinner.

The "rule" is that the verb should agree with the subject (potatoes) not the complement "dinner".

Exception:

In "There is/are" sentences, the subject is the pronoun "There" and the complement determines the form of the verb:

There is one potatoes/ There are many potatoes.

Similar exceptions apply in questions, with interrogative pronouns that don't have grammatical number.

Partial exception:

When the subject has become separated from the verb and complement it is common and at least tolerated that the subject is forgotten. This is why you might see (2) in natural English. The Subject "risks" is a far from the verb "is/are", but the verb is close to the complement "subject". It is natural (but logically incorrect) for the closer phrase "a subject up for debate" to influence the choice of verb form, and many speakers will naturally choose "is".

This is not a rule that is easy to apply, it is more a common mistake that doesn't cause confusion, and so has become, tentatively, part of English.

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