If the question is”What are they?” Asking about more than 2 different objects, is it grammatically correct to say”it’s a pen and a book.”?or should it be “they’re a pen and a book.?” If they are both acceptable, what is the difference here? I’m very confused. Thank you!!


There are several ways to answer that question, but since it employs a certain pronoun (they), the natural tendency is to respond in kind.

What are they?
They are a pen and a book.

Just as naturally, a native speaker might use a determiner to answer individually with more specificity:

What are they?
This is a pen and this is a book.

There is nothing wrong with answering as you did:

What are they?
They're a pen and a book.

That is the kind of shorthand answer that would cause no consternation, and you will hear that sort of thing all the time in speech.

The only answer that could cause problems is your first supposition:

What are they?
It's a pen and a book.

Pedants will insist that you can't switch pronouns and number like that, but in fact such a thing has been going on for hundreds of years. As the lexicographers at the American Heritage Dictionary note:

The use of the plural pronouns they, them, themselves, or their with a grammatically singular antecedent dates back at least to 1300, and such constructions have been used by many admired writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray ("A person can't help their birth"), George Bernard Shaw ("To do a person in means to kill them"), and Anne Morrow Lindbergh ("When you love someone you do not love them all the time").

In your case the antecedent is plural and the progression is to the singular, but I think we are still dealing with the same issue.

  • Thank you!! I get it now
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    Oct 7 at 8:38
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    – Robusto
    Oct 11 at 16:14

Almost never.

The question "What are they?" implies that the questioner believes that there are many things.

Saying "It's ...." means that there is one thing. "It's a pen and a book" means that the one thing is "a pen and a book" considered to be one object. Why does a person think that "a book and a pen" is one object? It doesn't make sense.

A pen and a book are clearly two objects.... so the person wouldn't use a singular.

Perhaps "What are they?" / "It's a cup and saucer." Since a cup and saucer might be considered to be one object.

In real dialogue, the questions and answers are not so short and simple.


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