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It's hard for a non-native English speaker to figure out what is the subject in the following sentence. Is "a different approach" is the subject of the whether phrase? Then, it should have been "whether a different approach to delivering the needed capabilities is in order?"? Considering the context, it seems "the needed capabilities" should be the subject.

Because we have already spent the money to deliver a “legacy” system, we assume that we have to keep spending money on its continued existence. But why? Shouldn’t we be deciding whether the incremental spending is worthwhile in itself, or whether a different approach to delivering the needed capabilities are in order? Even if we are just “fixing” or “maintaining” the system?

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    That phrase is simply wrong. It should definitely be "is in order". Probably the writer accepted the naive advice of an automatic grammar checker. May 1, 2021 at 13:59
  • So you're asking about the subordinate subject(s). The subordination consists of a coordination of two interrogatives: ["whether the incremental spending is worthwhile in itself], or [whether a different approach to delivering the needed capabilities is in order]. Brackets enclose the subordinate clauses, and their subjects are in bold. "Whether" is just a subordinator.
    – BillJ
    May 1, 2021 at 15:22

2 Answers 2

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You are correct that the subject and verb do not agree. It should be: a new approach... is in order.

The subject of the clause is "a new approach," and the conjugated form of the verb to be is "is." The author likely got confused by the plural object "capabilities" directly preceding the verb.

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  • Thanks for the answer. It helps a lot.
    – M. Kim
    May 2, 2021 at 0:58
  • This quite a common error by native English speakers. It's so common that I've seen some attempts to make systematize as part of an informal grammar.
    – trlkly
    May 2, 2021 at 6:40
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While @randomhead has correctly told you that the singular agreement is required, I disagree that a different approach is the subject.

The subject of the clause is the whole noun phrase a different approach to delivering the needed capabilities. To delivering the needed capabilities functions as a complement of "approach", so it is also part of the noun phrase.

The number (singular/plural) of a noun phrase is dependent on its head. The head of the noun phrase in question is "approach", which is singular, so the singular agreement (that is, "is") is required.

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  • I'd say the matrix subject is "we". "Whether the incremental spending is worthwhile in itself, or whether a different approach to delivering the needed capabilities are in order" is a subordinate interrogative clause.
    – BillJ
    May 1, 2021 at 14:38
  • @BillJ I'm referring to the subject of the subordinate interrogative clause, which is a different approach to delivering the needed capabilities, isn't it?
    – user178049
    May 1, 2021 at 14:45
  • OK. The subordination consists of a coordination of two interrogatives: ["whether the incremental spending is worthwhile in itself], or [whether a different approach to delivering the needed capabilities is in order].
    – BillJ
    May 1, 2021 at 14:54
  • Thanks all. It's all clear now.
    – M. Kim
    May 2, 2021 at 1:00

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