Usually the 'What-clause' is considered to be a singular subject. I am under the impression that it takes a singular verb even if the predicate is plural, but I may be wrong. Examples:

What we need is not protests. What we really need is new generations able to voice their opinions. What we need is Chinese men and women eloquent in foreign languages.

Please correct or confirm.

4 Answers 4


Although what we need are is possible in some cases, in this case it's a poor choice. Why? Because all three what we needs refers to the same thing, and that thing is either singular or plural, not both. It's quite strange to refer to it first as though it's plural, then as though it's singular.

The best choice is to use is all three times:

What we need isn't protests.
What we need is new generations able to voice their opinions.
What we need is Chinese men and women who are eloquent speakers of foreign languages.

The parallelism is stronger rhetorically in any case.

Besides which, is is the more common choice overall. Take a look at this chart of four n-grams in the Google Books corpus:

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From this chart, it seems that is is eight times more common than are; and specifically with negatives, it's ten times more common. So both occur, but is is clearly favored.


There are many discussions on this, for example this answer and this discussion. The short answer: both are correct, with "is" being the more common choice.

Subject clauses beginning with "what" are singular, as you said, we can substitute "what" with "the thing that". The verb agrees with the subject, and not with the object. That is why what matters is the "what-clause", as you call it, and not the predicate, and the verb will usually be "is" and not "are".

When the object is singular, it is quite clear:

What really matters is your health.

What I want is my own home.

Sometimes, however, when the object is plural, we want to emphasize that. That is when "are" is possible:

What really matters is/are the children and their needs, not our desires and our peace and quiet.

What we want is/are heroes.

Most of the time the choice would still be "is" but "are" would not be a mistake.

  • What really matters are children -does not look proper to me.
    – Maulik V
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 9:26
  • You can take any such example, for instance "What really matters are the money markets" (taken from The Telegraph). The same concept, "is" is the more common choice, "are" is possible. I edited my example a bit.
    – fluffy
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 9:34

A quote by Theodore Roethke

What we need are more people who specialize in the impossible.”

The what-clause can take both singular or plural verbs depending on the predicate. Here, in the quote, we used 'are' that refers to the people. Had it been only one person, the clause could have taken is -- What we need is a person who specializes....

I found a useful piece of information on the web.

Clauses beginning with what may be singular or plural according to what they refer to, as in "What we need is more time" and "What we need are two more workers."

I also observe that a singular verb is used in such cases. Maybe, because the later part of the what-clause is considered as a singular concept irrespective of the plural predicate words. As in - What we need is men with powerful weapons wherein men with powerful weapons is considered as a singular concept.

Good question though. +1

  • 1
    If you google "What we need is more people" it makes you wonder why it is so popular (including in the American press) if it is wrong.
    – fluffy
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 7:23
  • @fluffy I had removed that paragraph in my answer. But your comment again provoked me! :)
    – Maulik V
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 7:43
  • But you see, how do we know that "what we need" is singular?
    – fluffy
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 7:48
  • @fluffy There need is considered a singular. Our need is and Our needs are
    – Maulik V
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 7:49
  • The "need" from your answer is a verb and the "need" from your comment is a noun.
    – fluffy
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 7:51

Let me simply explain 'what-clause' to you.

If a subject is in singular, you use a singular form of a verb and vice versa.

'What' means 'the thing that' or 'the things that'. The relavtive pronoun 'what' includes the antecedent: the thing or the things.

In a grammatical aspect, noun-clauses, noun-phrases and gerunds adopt the singular form of a verb. That's why lots of what-clauses use a singular type of a verb.

But if the antecedent means 'plural' nouns(the things that) you should use the plural form of a verb.

It doesn't matter whether the subjective complement(after 'be' verb) is singular or plural.

What(The things that) are regarded today as grammatical are not always grammatical.

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