25

I want to write:

One cake is good, but 4 {is,are} better!

Which one ("are" or "is") should I use?

Looking at examples online it seems that both are acceptable.

So here are my questions:

  1. Which one is grammatically correct (one? both?)
  2. Which one is most used?
8
  • 9
    Our American and UK users may differ on the answer here
    – costrom
    Jul 30 at 13:19
  • 9
    not an answer, but perhaps four would be better Jul 30 at 13:21
  • 2
    While I favour 'and' - I think of four cakes, not having four cakes - it's interesting to note that almost universally the contracted version would infer 'is': One cake is good, but four's better'.
    – mcalex
    Jul 30 at 19:42
  • 1
    @Cave the first half of Jay's answer is entirely wrong to me (a Brit), I read the sentence as "[having] one cake is good, but [having] 4 [cakes] is better" by default. The sentence is ambiguous even without the subtle change Jay mentions. (I'm not entirely convinced that's an AmE vs BrE thing though)
    – Nick
    Aug 1 at 10:28
  • 1
    "Is" is singular, "are" is plural. "She is good at that game" vs "They are good at that game." I suppose there are cases where you could refer to the 4 as a group, or the 4 as individuals, but generally they'd be referred to in the plural.
    – Issel
    Aug 2 at 0:17

12 Answers 12

60

The answer depends on the exact wording.

If you say exactly what you wrote, "One cake is good but four is/are better", then the correct answer is "are". There's an implied "cakes" after "four", "four CAKES are better". "Four cakes" is clearly plural, so you should use the plural verb.

But now make a subtle change in wording that doesn't change the meaning at all. "Eating one cake is good, but four is/are better." Now the correct answer is "is". Because again we've elided words, the full meaning is "Eating one cake is good, but eating four cakes is better." Now the subject of the second clause is not "four cakes" but "eating", and "eating is singular. The same would be true if instead of "eating" you said "having" or "buying" or "baking", etc.

15
  • 5
    If you were referring to the numbers themselves, rather than a quantity of things, you'd use "is". E.g.: "Nine is a perfect square but four is a better one." (A bit contrived, sure, but trying to keep the sentence structure as close as possible to the original.) Jul 30 at 13:08
  • 16
    To me, "four cakes are better" means that each of the four cakes is better, which is not what the OP's sentence means. Like for instance "Brazil is a big country, but four countries are bigger." So I prefer "is".
    – TonyK
    Jul 30 at 13:16
  • 6
    @TonyK is is wrong, and I do t think many people would interpret it that way. It’s definitely saying that “having 4 cakes is better than 1”. For your meaning it would be “this cake is good but these 4 are better”
    – Tim
    Jul 30 at 14:26
  • 4
    @Tim: "@TonyK is is wrong, and I do t think...": wut? I will take a punt and assume that this means that you disagree with me. But the rest of your comment seems to support my view, so I'm back where I started.
    – TonyK
    Jul 30 at 16:01
  • 4
    @Tim There are multiple possible interpretations of the sentence. Some interpretations may be more familiar to you but the others are not invalid. Consider a cake judging competition. "Joe's cake is a good cake. Beth's cake, Fred's cake, Jane's cake and John's cake are, each one of them, better cakes than Joe's cake. One cake is good, but four are better." Yes, most people are not involved in cake judging competitions, so this is somewhat unlikely. But given only what the OP wrote, it's impossible to declare any interpretation as unreservedly wrong. Jul 30 at 16:54
35

I would tend towards is in this case, because to me the underlying meaning of this sentence is "(having) One cake is good, but (having) 4 is better"

Using are here sounds vaguely off to me for that reason.

3
  • I agree: are sounds vaguely off to me too, and this answer explains why.
    – TonyK
    Jul 30 at 13:15
  • 1
    It all depends on whether the sentence is meant to communicate a singular, or a plural.
    – Mark G B
    Jul 30 at 15:45
  • Again, you've actually shown that the sentence is inconclusive by itself. Are we to assume the intention of the writer was "having 4" or "4 cakes"?
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 30 at 17:05
11

Grammatically, either may be used. However, the meaning would be different. I'm going to assume you're not intending to describe the quality of the cakes themselves, but rather the fact that you prefer having four over having one. In this case, you should use is.

To make this more clear, consider if we used are. This would mean that the implied word "cakes" is being referred to by "are better", meaning there are "four cakes" which "are better". A potential use of this phrasing that comes to mind is some kind of test, where five cakes are sitting out on a table and someone tells you, "One cake is good, but four are better. Identify the better ones!"

You, however, wished to express that it is the act of having four cakes which is better, not that the four cakes themselves are better. This means that there is some hidden phrasing implied here (as observed in steffishnz's answer), which is "[Having] one cake is good, but [having] four cakes is better". It is the existence of these cakes, or the possession of them, which we are describing as better, rather than the cakes themselves.

I do think it sounds better to say "One cake is good, but four is better" than "One cake is good, but four cakes is better", only because "cakes is" will sound jarring to people since it may appear that you're using "is" to refer to the plural noun "cakes", even though as discussed above, you're truly referring to the existence/possession of those four cakes.


On a related note since I can't comment, it's better to use four than 4. The general convention is that for numbers less than 10, we should write out the number (with some exceptions that I won't go into here).

5
  • For individual writers, the choice of writing out numbers versus using digits may involve subjective judgments as to which is clearer in a particular case (I agree "four" is better here). Prescriptivist writing guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style use strict rules to ensure that if a newspaper has multiple staff editors, their work will be essentially indistinguishable; that doesn't mean that people who are writing as individuals should seek to make their writing indistinguishable from that of newspaper staff editors.
    – supercat
    Jul 30 at 16:10
  • 4
    I don't think this is true. Consider the phrase "two hands are better than one". Clearly, it's not saying that both of the hands individually are better than the other one; it's saying that the group is better than the other group, but you still use "are" here. Jul 31 at 2:59
  • @HelloGoodbye - although one says 'a pair of hands is better...'
    – Tim
    Jul 31 at 12:16
  • Wow perfect answer. That’s encouraging given how wrong the most popular answer is. My first question on this stack. In theory (only), the sentence could be about the cakes themselves. For that, the sentence would be truly bizarre. Imagine your friend tasting 5 cakes and saying, “One is good, but four are better.” However, “This cake is good, but four are better.” makes sense. “All five are good.” “One is good, and four are great.” (Those last two are more informative btw than “One is good, but..”). No one would ever say that. There is no context I can imagine where “are” would be correct
    – Al Brown
    Jul 31 at 22:54
  • @Tim because "a pair" is singular, but "two" is plural Aug 1 at 16:07
6

Both can be correct, or conversely, incorrect. It all depends on whether the sentence is intended to communicate a singular or a plural. While I think the most likely usage would be is, since better refers back to four, and four in this case would be a group (of four cakes), the sentence is ambiguous. As noted, are could also be used, and that would change the implied meaning. Modest changes in the construction would make the intended meaning much clearer (e.g. having four or there are four, etc.).

For example, with the case of is:

Four is better

would imply that the four is being used to describe a group, and thus a singular. So, to expand, you might have something like

Having four is better.

On the other hand, for the case of are:

Four are better

innately refers to a plural, four individual objects (cakes), each one of which is "better". Expanding, you could have:

This cake is good, but four are better.

This immediately implies that there are four cakes available that are "better" than the one referred to. So, writing for better clarity:

This cake is good, but there are four that are better.

For the original instance

One cake is good, but four is better.

Writing for better clarity would be:

One cake is good, but having four is better.

7
  • 2
    the "four" is being used to describe a group, and thus a singular. I'd say that "four" is acting as a noun in the short, isolated sentence "Four is better."
    – RonJohn
    Jul 30 at 16:33
  • @RonJohn, and I would say you are correct, but the point of being a singularity is what makes the difference between using is and are, no?
    – Mark G B
    Jul 31 at 22:26
  • For it to be a ranking would be a bizarre statement. Imagine your friend tasting five cakes and saying that. However, “This cake is good, but four are better.” makes sense. “All five are good.” “One is good, and four are great.” (Those last two are more informative btw than “One is good, but..”). No one would ever say that.
    – Al Brown
    Jul 31 at 22:44
  • 1
    @AlBrown, I can't agree that it would be bizarre as a ranking. Although, if there were only 5 cakes involved, it would seem odd! However, if there were 6 cakes being compared, it wouldn't be odd at all. It would still be ambiguous, but not odd (or bizarre). IMHO, YMMV! :D
    – Mark G B
    Jul 31 at 23:02
  • 1
    @MarkGB actually that makes some sense. 🤔. I do think it would be significantly less bizarre. Yeah maybe to be emphatic, or leading and colorful in language, then you might. If there were twenty and you came back and said, “One is good, <pause, leaning in> but four are better!” Lol. Thanks for the reply
    – Al Brown
    Jul 31 at 23:41
5

Looking at all of the answers and comments, I find I am siding with steffishnz and TonyK. As they have both emphasized, Saying One cake is good, but four are better could mean you are talking about specific cakes that are better than the supposed one cake.

So, in the original sentence, I interpreted the meaning to mean [Having] one cake is good, but [having] four cakes is better, having being replaced with a different verb as needed (eating, sharing, etc.)

Clearly, this is not the only correct answer, and I also see the other view as well. However, is makes more sense to me.

There are things you (OP) could do to eliminate this lack of clarity in the sentence, such as adding a verb (as shown above), or even just the context of the sentence.

If you are previously talking about specific cakes, it would make more sense (again, in my opinion) to use are.

On the other hand, if you are talking about quantities of cakes (as I interpreted the original sentence to be), I personally recommend is.

If you still are unsure, read (out loud) your sentence and 1 or 2 surrounding sentences, swapping out is and are.

Whichever one seems to fit better is the one you should go with.

TL;DR

Which one is grammatically correct (one? both?)

They are both grammatically correct. Use whichever one seems to fit better.

Which one is most used?

Reading the comments, I think its around a 50/50 split between the 2 options. I think they are both equally valid.

4
  • 2
    This hits closest to the true answer, which is "it depends on the context". All of the answers arguing for one specific side are assuming the context. If you were having a conversation and someone said "I think we should bring a cake to the party" then the correct sentence would be "(bringing) one cake is good, but (bringing) four is better". However, if you were judging a cake contest and someone asked about them, the correct sentence would be "one cake is good, but four (other cakes) are better (and five other cakes are worse!)"
    – Herohtar
    Jul 31 at 5:29
  • I tried to remain impartial when answering because of how many people were arguing for a single side.
    – RMCodes
    Jul 31 at 13:55
  • Good answer. But the more you think about it, that would be a very strange thing to say (for “are” to be correct). So, there are some big clues imo. I think the statement is about the number. Yes there could be five cakes being ranked. “This cake is good, but four are better” makes sense. “One is good but four are better” not referring to which, is just strange thing to say. You would just say “theyre all good” (which, thinking about it, is more informative), or even “one is good, and four are great”, (also more info). It should be “is”
    – Al Brown
    Jul 31 at 22:41
  • I also think that it is about number (as stated in the answer), but I decided to include the comparison version (are) in case that was OP's original intent. This question is not about how OP should rephrase their sentence, but about whether is or are is better. However, I do agree with your sentence corrections, but that is not what OP was asking. In order to give a clear answer, we would need more context than what was provided.
    – RMCodes
    Aug 1 at 15:34
2

Both are correct.

There are three four! four! possible interpretations. There isn’t really any difference in meaning between the first three, and I don’t believe the fourth is plausible, so it’s entirely up to you whether you use “is” or “are”.

  1. The subject is an implied noun. The noun is quantified by “four”, so it must be a plural, and “are” agrees with it: “Four [cakes] are better.”
  2. The subject is an implied gerund (of which “four [cakes]” is the object). This is taken as singular, and “is” agrees with it: “[Having] four is better.”
  3. The subject is “four”, here being used as a noun meaning “a group of four objects”. This is one group, and “is” agrees with it: “[A group of] four is better.”

The first two have been extensively covered by other answers, but I haven’t seen anyone mention the third except in comments. I’m sure there are style guides out there that insist that using a number (other than one) as a singular noun for a group is bad and shouldn’t be done. The fact is, though, it is done.


The fourth interpretation is different. The versions above all take “better” as comparing the number: “this amount is better than that amount”. But there’s another possibility…

  1. The comparison “better” refers to the cakes themselves. The quality of one particular cake is good, but there are four cakes that have better quality. In this case, it must be “are”, not “is”. The reason is the same as for possibility #1, above. “Four” quantifies the implied plural noun “cakes”, and “are” agrees with that.

It can’t be “one group of four” as in possibility #3, because comparing the cakes’ quality is partitive—you’re saying each cake, individually, is better than the first one. You are not treating them as a group that is better in quality only when put together.

But again, I don’t think this is plausible. The sentence is ambiguous, but my mind went only to the first interpretation (“it is better to have four cakes”), and I had to have the second (“the quality is better for four of the cakes”) pointed out to me. I know it’s presumptuous of me to think that all, or even most, English speakers would resolve the ambiguity the same way I did. But I do think that. I honestly don’t think most speakers would think you meant the second one, and I think many wouldn’t even consider it.


If you wanted to communicate the second meaning, you would need a construction like “of them”:

One cake is good, but four of them are better.

One of the cakes is good, but four of them are better.

And I still find those odd. I would expect the “good” cake to be clearly identified, not left as a puzzle!

This cake is good, but four of them are better.

The cake you picked is good, but four of the others are better.

And in this situation it must be “are”. I would read this next form as implying “having”, returning it to the first meaning:

One cake is good, but four of them is better.

[Having] one cake is good, but [having] four of them is better.

6
  • I disagree with "There isn’t really any difference in meaning", and I think your answer also disagrees. They have different meanings, otherwise you could use either in each of the three cases. Jul 31 at 18:56
  • @TobySpeight: Each one implies different additional words, yes. But the meaning doesn't change. Every variation denotes "it is better to have four cakes", and I can’t think of any difference in their connotations. Jul 31 at 19:15
  • Ah, you missed the meaning that "one cake [of the set] is good, but four [of those cakes] are better", which is a slightly different meaning. Jul 31 at 19:28
  • 1
    Tobys right. Several answers are wrong. If you are making a statement about the items themselves, use “are”. If making a statement about the number of items, us “is”. Correct usages: “One cake is good, but four is better.” The statement is about the number. “I ate ten cakes. Your cake is great, but four are better. Five are worse.” The statement is about the cakes themselves. “On our channel, Eleven tv shows is bad. One is good, but eleven is bad.” Discussing the number of shows. “Of the many new tv shows, eleven are worthwhile.” Discussing the shows themselves.
    – Al Brown
    Jul 31 at 22:27
  • 2
    @TobySpeight: Right you are! I did miss that. But I think (contrary to Al Brown's comment and answer) that, while that's a grammatically correct interpretation, it's an unlikely one. I think (most?) native speakers, hearing this sentence with either "is" or "are", would interpret it as "it is better to have four cakes". Aug 1 at 7:41
2

The number four is grammatically singular, a group of four things is grammatically singular, and four things are grammatically plural.

This sentence is ambiguous, because there’s a missing word in the sentence that the listener is supposed to fill in from context. Personally, I took the sentence to mean, “Four [cakes] are better,” with the word “cakes” omitted for brevity.

However, several other readers interpreted it slightly differently and preferred “is.” They aren’t wrong: another way to fill in the gaps is, “One [of something] is good, but four [of something] is better.” That works grammatically like, “Four is greater than one,” or “Four is equal to two plus two,” which are facts about numbers.

2
  • I think the statement is clearly about the number. It could be otherwise, but thatd be odd. There could be five cakes being ranked. But that would be a weird statement. “This cake is good, but four are better” makes sense. “One is good but four are better” not referring to which, is just strange thing ti say. It should be “is”
    – Al Brown
    Jul 31 at 22:33
  • @AlBrown The number four is singular in sentences such as, “Four is equal to two plus two,” or “Four is an unlucky number in Japan.” I think, in context, this is a statement about cakes, not numbers, but it could be read the other way.
    – Davislor
    Aug 1 at 14:09
1

The example sentence itself is ambiguous.

If the cakes are being compared for quality, then one cake is good, but four (others) are better is absolutely correct.

If Billy Bunter is quoted: (eating) one cake is good, but (eating) four is better will also be correct.

So without any other clues from the surrounding text from the story, it depends...

1
  • I agree in principle, but there are some big clues imo. I think the statement is clearly about the number. It could be otherwise, but thatd be odd. There could be five cakes being ranked. But that would be a weird statement. “This cake is good, but four are better” makes sense. “One is good but four are better” not referring to which, is just strange thing ti say. You would just say theyre all good or even “one is good, and four are great”, but the given statement doesnt even contain that information if ranking. It should be “is”
    – Al Brown
    Jul 31 at 22:35
1

I wouldn't have expected a lot of discussion over this question!

Flipping the sentence, no one says, "Four cakes is better than one." But in the comparison example, I suppose you could get away with saying, "One cake is good, but four is better," because it contains an implied word, 'group'. E.g., "One cake is good, but a group of four is better."

Given the implications of each version of is/are, both should work.

2
  • Yes “Four cakes is better than one.” is correct and thats what id say naturally. Several answers are wrong. If discussing the items themselves, use “are”. If discussing the number of items, us “is”. Correct usages: “One cake is good, but four is better.” The statement is about the number. “I ate ten cakes. Your cake is great, but four are better. Five are worse.” about the cakes themselves. “On our channel, Eleven tv shows is bad. One is good, but eleven is bad.” about the number of shows. “Of the many new tv shows, eleven are worthwhile.” Discussing the shows themselves.
    – Al Brown
    Jul 31 at 22:30
  • @Al Brown I disagree that several answers are wrong. All answers interpreted it in one way or another, and based on their interpretations, the answers are correct.
    – RMCodes
    Aug 1 at 16:49
1

Several answers are wrong, including the one with the most votes.

If you are making a statement about the items themselves, use “are”. If making a statement about the number of items, us “is”.

Correct usages:

“One cake is good, but four is better.” The statement is about the number.

“I ate ten cakes. Your cake is great, but four are better. Five are worse.” The statement is about the cakes themselves.

“For a day of TV, eleven tv shows is bad. One is good, but eleven is bad.” Discussing the number of shows.

“Of the many new tv shows, eleven are worthwhile.” Discussing the shows themselves.

In theory (only in theory), the sentence could be about the cakes themselves, as in a ranking. For it to be a ranking, the op’s sentence would be a truly bizarre statement. Imagine your friend tasting five cakes and saying, “One is good, but four are better.” However, “This cake is good, but four are better.” makes sense. “All five are good.” “One is good, and four are great.” both makes sense. (Those last two are more informative btw than “One is good, but four are better.”). No one would ever say that. There is no context I can imagine where “are” would be correct. The most popular answer was not even wrong for this reason though.

9
  • But the sentence is not talking about the number four. It is talking about four of something, namely, cakes. If I wrote, "One is an odd number but four is an even number", then I would be talking about the number itself, and so it would be correct to say "four is". But we're not talking about the number here. We're talking about a number of cakes.
    – Jay
    Aug 1 at 3:14
  • A number of cakes. The noun is “number” which is singular and the prepositional phrase is a modifier of the noun “number”, cakes is just the preopositional object. Now i feel bad being so negative and obnoxious abiut your super popular answer. And scared of knife wounds
    – Al Brown
    Aug 1 at 5:47
  • 1
    Downvoting because saying "Several answers are wrong, including the one with the most votes." is only a matter of opinion. Every answer I have seen is correct based on people's interpretation. Yes, I agree that in this particular scenario, is makes more sense, but your first sentence throws the whole answer off to a bad start.
    – RMCodes
    Aug 1 at 15:39
  • 1
    @Jay Al is saying that in the sentence it is not the cakes themselves that are better, but the situation of there being four of them rather than one. (In fact the statement is is kind of taking it as given that all cakes in general are equally desirable; otherwise one cake may well be better than four, depending on the cakes). It's not that the four cakes are better than the one; it's that "four cakes" is a better situation than "one cake".
    – Ben
    Aug 1 at 23:35
  • @Ben Sure, I get that. But grammatically, the subject of the clause is still the implied "cakes", not the number "four". The sentence is not about the number four, but about four cakes.
    – Jay
    Aug 3 at 18:54
0

It depends: Are you talking about the cakes, or are you talking about how many of them there are?

"One cake is good, but four [cakes] are better."

With this wording, the subject of the second part is the implied word "cakes," matching the plural verb "are." Grammatically speaking, the word "four" is incidental and could be removed without changing the core subject-verb grammar structure of the sentence.

For the sentence's meaning, you could replace "four" with "these other" or any other appropriate descriptive clause and it would still mean the same thing - whichever cakes it's talking about, those cakes are better.

"One cake is good, but four [cakes] is better."

With this wording, the subject of the second part is the word "four," meaning "the quantity four," which is singular. The implied word "cakes" is grammatically incidental and could be removed without changing the core subject-verb grammar structure of the sentence.

For the sentence's meaning, you could replace "cake" (and the associated implied "cakes") with any other noun, and while it would be talking about a quantity of something different, it would still be saying that a greater quantity is better.

0

this kind of problem is of course highly context dependant. Consider the following examples:

cake number three uses an artificial sweetener while cake number four uses sugar - "four is better"

or

"an engine can have three cylinders but four are better"

If you are talking about a number of discrete items you should use are. So In the sentence "One cake is good, but 4 {is,are} better!", are fits best.

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