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Young people love testing and using different types of things, whether it is clothes, food, gadgets, or any other items.

I do not know whether the correct form is "...whether they are clothes, food..." or the original sentence is correct.

Please, tell me how to choose the correct form.

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    Why not omit the verb after whether. The sentence reads better without it .....whether clothes, food, etc. Aug 3, 2022 at 15:22
  • It is "they" because what is loved is testing types of things which is plural.
    – John Douma
    Aug 4, 2022 at 2:49

4 Answers 4

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With respect for @MarcinManhattan's answer - which I have upvoted - I would tend to use it, simply because it sounds more idiomatic to me. But then I'm British and it may not be the case with all English speakers.

Nonetheless I think that I, personally, would use the subjunctive*, as below. That also partially gets you over the singular or plural conjugation conundrum.

Young people love testing and using new things, whether it be clothes, food, gadgets, or any other items.

*I am aware that some senior academics in the field do not regard this quirk strictly as a subjunctive, but for the purposes of this answer I will call it that.

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    I would also switch "items" to some other, singular word, since "items" is definitely not an "it"
    – Esther
    Aug 3, 2022 at 17:02
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    @Esther Your comment has now made me even more sure of my ground that it should be "it". Whether it be men or women, that one asks, the answer is always the same. I feel sure that the "it" is a bit like the expletive subject in "it is raining".
    – WS2
    Aug 3, 2022 at 17:10
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    That archaic use of be is about the only one in contemporary English that I would refer to as "subjunctive".
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 3, 2022 at 17:38
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    hu? I agree with the first para, but your conversion sentence should definitely have 'they' not 'it' (but interestingly I'd accept either 'be' or 'are' after it). But your conversion sentence also removes the the 'types of' clause which simplifies the structure.
    – mcalex
    Aug 4, 2022 at 0:50
  • @mcalex I am now convinced that the "it" in both sentences refers to the object clause "testing and using new things" not to the things themselves. Consider if the sentence had been Young people love testing and using new things - whether it be for fun or their education.
    – WS2
    Aug 4, 2022 at 8:27
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It seems to make the most sense to consider "things" to be the antecedent of the pronoun. Because "things" is plural, the pronoun should be plural, too:

Young people love testing and using different types of things, whether they are clothes, food, gadgets, or any other items.

Some people may say "it is" instead of "they are". They could perhaps justify that by arguing that the singular pronoun "it" describes some general idea, without an explicit antecedent. I don't find such an explanation very convincing and would recommend the plural version. However, native speakers will understand you no matter which version you use.

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    Why is ‘types’ not the antecedent?
    – gidds
    Aug 4, 2022 at 8:49
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    The problem with "they are", is it can read like the "young people" are the "clothes, food, ..."
    – xorsyst
    Aug 4, 2022 at 13:46
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    "Types of things" is the antecedent; whichever way we break it down is not really relevant to this context because it's still plural. @xorsyst Your reasoning is why I might still use the singular even knowing it might be grammatically incorrect. Aug 4, 2022 at 13:47
  • @gidds If you consider "clothes, food, gadgets, or any other items" to be "types of things", then it certainly could be. It seems a bit strange to me to suggest that "items" could be "types" of items, so I prefer to consider "things" to be the antecedent. Aug 4, 2022 at 18:25
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    My hears hear "whether they are" as completely unidiomatic. I would expect a plural antecedent to be repeated and "such as" replacing "whether" (which isn't the right word here anyway; the author is providing examples, not providing choices).
    – user158677
    Aug 4, 2022 at 19:52
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I wouldn't use either.

Using "it is" for something plural doesn't really make sense. However, the problem with "they are" is that (as xorsyst points out in a comment) it also agrees numerically with the subject (young people). It is more normal, when a personal pronoun could refer to either the preceding subject or object, to understand it as referring to the subject. Of course, here the sentence only makes sense with the other interpretation, but it may well still cause a momentary confusion in the reader while they work this out. To avoid this, you can instead use "those" (or that) to refer clearly to the object:

Young people love testing and using different types of things, whether those are clothes, food, gadgets, or any other items.

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Something I feel some people missing is that there is an ellipses happening. The sentence can be expanded a bit to:

Young people love testing and using different types of things, whether [the [type of] thing] is clothes, food, gadgets, or any other items.

The whether-clause is offering a choice of types. Young people love testing type 1 (clothes), type 2 (food), type 3 (gadgets), or other types.

It's singular because whether is contrastive, and the true antecedent is just one of the types: "Young people either like clothes, good, gadgets, or other types [or any combination of the above]."

Moreover, saying "they are" would lead to confusion, as it could technically refer to "young people," as in the example below:

Young people, whether they rich or poor, love testing and using...

Word order would normally demand that the whether comes right after the noun, so seeing "they are" so far removed sounds stilted and unidiomatic. WS2 is right, saying "whether it is" is idiomatic to English and preferring "whether they are" is not only misunderstanding what's actually going on underlying the grammar but is a form of learned hyper-correction.


I'll go one step further and say that the writing is actually poor. The author should have written "...types of things, such as...". "Whether" historically meant "which of the two," and even if you allow for more than two options, the idea behind it is to present distinct areas. In a sentence like, "Whether you want this or that changes what we do," you're given distinct options. No such choices are being provided (or emphasized) in the original sentence. Instead, you're provided examples.

But there are other ways of merely listing examples. E.g. you can say "such as." Other ways, such as "like," work as well.

The original sentence isn't wrong (except for sticklers), but it is confusing and not well written. And of course it leads to language learners to question why English is ostensibly illogical.

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  • Well, the point of using that structure was to emphasize that regardless of what the item is, young people would try to use different types of it. I don't think "such as" would have done justice to that. Aug 4, 2022 at 20:38
  • @onoseshaibu Maybe more context is needed then. From the one line that you provided, it seems that the authors is trying to convey that young people like a variety within a type, with one type being clothes, one type being gadgets, etc. If that's not correct, then a few sentences before and after this one is necessary. If I were still a line editor, I'd suggest that whole sentence be re-worded. It feels like one of my students would have written it.
    – user158677
    Aug 4, 2022 at 20:43
  • @cmv It's my sentence, and I admit it's not a good one. Maybe, I was too eager to use that grammar structure. Aug 4, 2022 at 20:49
  • @cmv (CONTINUATION) However, I still think that structure can be used appropriately in this context. I checked theindependent.co.uk and saw this sentence: "If you follow a routine, however, it is possible to achieve your skincare goals - whether they are clear, acne-free skin, increased hydration, or the diminished appearance of wrinkles or dark pigmentation." So, maybe if I rephrase the sentence like this, it will be right: " young people love testing and using different things, whether they are clothes, food, or gadgets. Aug 4, 2022 at 20:51
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    @onoseshaibu Note that I didn't say it was wrong. Just a bit oddly phrased. But there is a difference. In the Independent quote, it's quite clear that "they are" refers to "goals" - there is only one possible plural antecedent. I still think it's not well written though. And in fact it seems to come from Singapore!?
    – user158677
    Aug 5, 2022 at 3:44

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