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This is from an article published on CNBC:

"The only thing we haven't seen are locusts, said CEO Jim McCann in an interview." CNBC-A rose is still a rose

The subject of the sentence is "The only thing", which is clearly singular. So, the auxiliary verb must be singular, too. At least this is what we have been taught at school :)

However, you see in this sentence that the auxiliary is actually an "ARE". "The only thing.....are......".

If it is because it is followed by "locusts", the word "locusts" is not the subject of the sentence. So, I, as a non-native English speaker, would expect the auxiliary verb should agree with the subject. However, apparently, it is not.

So, why is "The only thing ..........." being followed by an "ARE"?

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  • 3
    I’m voting to close this question because it's based on a simple mistake, or a possibly a transcript error.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Mar 17 at 15:38
  • 8
    Locusts are the only thing we haven't seen. This is called an inverse copular construction, which exists in English. See Wikipedia.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 17 at 16:09
  • 16
    @BillyKerr There is no mistake here. And there is disagreement among linguists about how to classify copular and inverse copular constructions.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 17 at 16:11
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    Yunus, please weigh in. I don't think this should be closed.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 17 at 20:17
  • 6
    @Jay, yes exactly that. Even it is a mistake of the speaker, a non-native speaker can't recognise that. Becase sometimes what you see as a mistake turns out to be not a mistake but a colloquial usage, dialect, non-standard use, etc., similarly some other times what you see is grammatically correct turns out to be NOT idiomatic. So, learners have no other chance other than asking when they see something different from what they were taught at school.
    – Yunus
    Commented Mar 18 at 7:40

6 Answers 6

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Locusts might be plural, but 'thing' is the subject, and that is singular, so you should use is:

The only thing we haven't seen is locusts.

There must be subject-verb agreement. The subject is singular, so the verb form (in this case, is/are are forms of the verb to be) must match that.

Plural nouns, like 'locusts' can often be used as the generic plural to refer to that thing in general, or as a collected group.

Example:

  • My favourite fruit is bananas.
  • My biggest fear is spiders.

In these examples, 'bananas' and 'spiders' represent all bananas and spiders in general. It would be ridiculous to say "my favourite fruit is a banana" - it would sound like you have one special banana that you love. Likewise, in your example, 'locusts' means the insect in general, not any specific group of locusts, which is why they can be referred to as the singular 'thing' that has not been seen.

It is true that, sometimes, the verb can agree with the individuals of a group even when the group is the subject but normally only when both are named and only to emphasise the individuality of the group members. And of course, even native speakers make mistakes. So don't be misled by Google results that show the contrary. Google the phrase "the only thing is" and the erroneous "the only thing are", and you will get results for both - however, the first will get you 49,300,000 results, the first of which is a dictionary definition of the phrase; the second, wrong phrase, gets you 1,140,000 (less than 3% of the combined results) and the top results are two Stack Exchange ELL pages (one is yours) asking the question if the phrase is right or wrong. So anything but the usual subject-verb agreement you would expect to find is very uncommon indeed.

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    Fear is a collection of fears? Fruit is a collection of fruits? Really?
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 17 at 21:54
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    @lambie No, you've completely misunderstood. It's not the fear or fruit that are generic, but the spiders and the bananas. Keep up. In the OP's example, 'locusts' is also a singular, generic noun
    – Astralbee
    Commented Mar 17 at 22:22
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  • 4
    Your answer is a bit off the mark: (1) It does not address the inversions causing the confusion. (2) The "generic plural" reference is an irrelevant distraction; this is not the issue here. (3) You could also try to clear up the OP's confusion about the grammatical role of "the locusts", which is essential to understanding why this construction is difficult to analyze. Commented Mar 18 at 11:01
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica I don't address anything in other incorrect answers because that's not what one should do in an answer - I've used comments for that. I've just focused on the OP's question, and I've addressed it by showing that verb has to agree with the subject.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Mar 18 at 11:26
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Here is what real English speakers actually do. The examples (1)-(30) below show that in such cases native speakers, including some expert users of the language, often use plural are to agree with the following noun phrase.

The examples shown are from a range of sources from the first page of a google search, including world-famous film critics like Roger Ebert, the official promotional material for films, promotional blurb from publishers for books on Amazon and so forth.

What all of this shows is that with any kind of cleft-like sentence involving the word thing, you are quite likely to see the verb BE showing proximity agreement with the noun phrase that follows it, instead of agreeing with the word thing.

It also shows that you should never ever listen to people when they try and change the rules of the language according to what they think the language should do!!!

Enjoy!:


Edit

Due to popular demand, I have now edited in a smaller sample of attested examples beginning The only thing we saw were. These are taken from the texts of published books and academic journals. This miniature corpus now occurs before the larger list below. Enjoy!

The only thing we saw were ...

  1. The only thing we saw were rocks.
    Jorge Daniel Taillant (2021) Meltdown: The Earth Without Glaciers The Open University Press

  2. The only thing we saw were thousands of sheep, raising dust.
    Mark Harris, ‎Deborah Oppenheimer (2000) Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport Bloomsbury.

  3. The only thing we saw were granular deposits of IgG and complement.
    José Strauss (2012) Pediatric Nephrology: Volume 6 Current Concepts in Diagnosis and Management Springer.

  4. The only thing we saw were pictures they had taken of the scene and they were just from the head up.
    James R. Acker, Robert M. Bohm and Charles S. Lanier [Editors] (2014) America's Experiment With Capital Punishment: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of the Ultimate Penal Sanction Carolina Academic Press

  5. The only thing we saw were numerous pinhead-size reddish purple spots, looking like raised tuffs of blood vessels in the periumbilical, pelvic, genital, and thigh areas.
    Walter B. Shelley, E. Dorinda Shelley (2006) Consultations in Dermatology: Studies of Orphan and Unique Patients Cambridge University Press

  6. The only thing we saw were the final projects they shared at the end, which were also the only graded portions of the hidden writing assignment.
    Salibrici, Mary M and Richard C Salter (2004) "The Transitional Space of Hidden Writing: A Resource for Teaching Critical Insight and Concern." Pedagogy, 4(2) p. 215-240. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/55548.

  7. The only thing we saw were wildly waving natives.
    William Diebold (2012) Hell is So Green: Search and Rescue Over the Hump in World War II Lyons Press

  8. The only thing we saw were the helicopters.
    Victoria Sandord (2000) Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala Palgrave Macmillan

  9. The only thing we saw were sea and sky and a number of sailboats, which made a beautiful sight on the water.
    Norwegian-American Historical Association Norwegain-American Studies Vol 24 p.35.

  10. The only thing we saw were sharks' fins sticking out of the water
    Peter K. Lutken Jr. [author] & E. R. Lutken [editor] A Thousand Places Left Behind: One Soldier’s Account of Jungle Warfare in WWII Burma University Press of Mississippi,

The only thing standing in his way ...

  1. The only thing standing in his way are the heroes of The Justice Society.See here
  2. The only thing standing in his way are feelings for a girl he knows will hold him back from his dreams. See here
  3. For Rams CB, E.J. Gaines, the only thing standing in his way are injuries. See here
  4. The only thing standing in his way are Earth's mightiest heroes collectively known as the Avengers ... See here
  5. The only thing standing in his way are those pesky workplace safety guidelines. See here
  6. The only thing standing in his way are two U.S. fighter jets. See here
  7. The only thing standing in his way are feral ponies, radical seniors, common sense, and Duncan's inability to do anything without a list. See here
  8. The only thing standing in his way are Rylan, a jaded, half-breed thief from the forest where Faedryn’s body lays hidden, and Lorelei, a quirky, bright-eyed inquisitor who takes her orders from one of the empire’s five ruling quintarchs. See here
  9. The only thing standing in his way are all the bugs, glitches and technical difficulties that come with any teleconference. See here
  10. The only thing standing in his way are two immigrants with massive mustaches who hope to throw a wrench in his plans. See here
  11. The only thing standing in his way are a travelling folk balladeer and centuries of history. See here
  12. A young man (Alexander) is ready to get his drivers license, and the only thing standing in his way are the outrageous, quirky and sometimes criminal driving test administrators he's paired with. See here
  13. The only thing standing in his way are his 6 older siblings. See here
  14. The only thing standing in his way are a group of young students who have taken up the mantel of X-Men. See here
  15. The only thing standing in his way are the Avengers, led by Thor. See here
  16. The only thing standing in his way are feral ponies, radical seniors, common sense, and Duncan's inability to do anything without a list. See here
  17. Lil' Dice, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to be the favela's undisputed crime boss, and the only thing standing in his way are the older hoods. See here
  18. O'Toole will do anything to get his hands on this fabled coin, and the only thing standing in his way are a couple of kids in actual possession of the artifact [sic]: one of them's an American tourist, the other a Palestinian kid. See here
  19. The only thing standing in his way are two American soldiers who believe they have discovered the target of the mission. See here
  20. The only thing standing in his way are a dislocated wing, an order to fire Tulip from the hedonistic current CEO Hunter, and the baby. See here
  21. And the only thing standing in his way are those damn kids. See here
  22. The Devil has arrived to claim his bride-to-be, Courtney and the only thing standing in his way are the bridesmaids, some unlucky passerbys, and Glen and his ragtag bunch of groomsmen. See here
  23. Roshan has awaken to reclaim the AEGIS of Immortals and the only thing standing in his way are the Rotaractors! See here
  24. Really, the only thing standing in his way are outdated stereotypes and stigmas about women's football. See here
  25. He has an army of werewolves and dark plans for Germania and Francia, and the only thing standing in his way are the Centurions at Nordhaven. See here
  26. The only thing standing in his way are his legs. See here
  27. The only thing standing in his way are people like Zeke and Kris, a vampire whose loyalty can't be bought. See here
  28. The only thing standing in his way are the local yokels of Sommerton. See here
  29. The only thing standing in his way are Republicans who must always remember that they have a mandate of their own—to stop him. See here
  30. The only thing standing in his way are a handful of corrupt officials and a culture not familiar with the problems facing their oceans. See here
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    Oh, I posted an answer similar to yours.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 18 at 17:22
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    +1 for "Here is what real English speakers actually do" I'm absolutely certain we hear this type of discordant singular subject and plural verb all the time but when it sounds natural, and it will in a native speaker's voice, we don't notice the "mistake".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 18 at 17:45
  • 3
    This is a good answer, but it could be strengthened by choosing examples with a broader variety of constructions, rather than only using “the only thing standing in X’s way [is/was ~ are/were]”. Commented Mar 18 at 21:25
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    All of those sound wrong to this native speaker's ear. I don't dispute that real native speakers sometimes make that mistake, but decent editors typically correct it in written English. And I note that my usual correction would not be to change "are" to "is", but rather to change "thing" to "things". Commented Mar 19 at 19:30
  • 3
    In spoken English you can get away with all of these because "the only thing standing" and "the only things standing" sound similar enough that a listener will hear whichever of these seems correct to them. As for written English, my main takeaway from this answer is that the Internet has enabled an explosion of unedited prose from inexpert writers.
    – David K
    Commented Mar 20 at 0:37
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Very often in speech–less rarely in print–native speakers will instinctively prefer the plural form of the verb when it follows a plural pronoun (we, they, you) and the adjacent countable noun or noun phrase is plural, even though the antecedent subject is singular.

From Google Books

  1. The conduct of the police was beyond all praise, for they were unarmed. The only thing THEY had were truncheons, and there were very poor weapons for dealing with men firing Webley revolvers. No praise could be too high and no admiration too great for the way which the brave police officers have maintained the noble traditions of their force.
    Source: The Parliamentary Debates: House of Lords official report (1941)

From a prescriptivist point of view, the grammatically correct version would be "The only things they had were truncheons…”

  1. The only thing WE did not eat were the butter and cream because I knew that Brucellosis was still widespread in Britain. Never once in Britain did I knowingly eat or drink uncooked fresh British dairy products.
    Source: Oxford Angel: The 91st General Hospital in World War II. (1966)

Similarly a prescriptivist might insist that the verb (be) agrees with the singular subject, i.e. "The only thing we did not eat was the butter because I knew…” which means the term cream has to be eliminated from the narrative or else we "must" pluralise the subject i.e. "…the only thingswere butter and cream…”

  1. Let me emphasize that the one thing WE did not have were good, solid numbers. We didn't have market data. It was a big guess. For instance if, if the market is for blue hula hoops and you're getting ready to sell red one with sequins and tassels, there isn't a market for your product;…
    Source: Workshop on Enzyme Economics: (1975)

  2. Any enquiry by the tax payers would have readily shown that the claims of value made by Jackie Fine Arts to the taxpayers before the first acquisitions were totally unsupported in fact and the only thing THEY bought were tax losses.
    Source: American Federal Tax Reports (1989)

  3. Last decade, our shining towers fell, our cities drowned, and our currency lost much of its value. Heavily armed soldiers patrolled our city streets during color-coded "terrorist" alerts. About the only thing WE didn't see were actual zombies
    Source: Horror Films FAQ (2013) By John Kenneth Muir

  4. One thing WE did not see were patients with frontal lobe lesions. Even though some of the research we will talk about had already taken place when I was in medical school in the early 1980s, the frontal lobes were still referred to as the silent lobes.
    source: Frontal Fatigue
    The Impact of Modern Life and Technology on Mental Illness (2021) By Dr. Mark Rego

  5. The Banquet maître d' made an announcement at the end of the function to explain the situation and the game plan to get sleep, makeshift bed and washing stuff, towels etc. The only thing WE did not have were toothbrushes. Had there been a drugstore in the center…
    Source: tales Trebbiano (2021)

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    +1 Nice post. I don't know the relative figures, but I do agree, intuitively, that an intervening plural NP does indeed increase the chance of a plural verb. Commented Mar 18 at 17:36
  • 1
    I thought I'd try out your theory a bit and googled "the only thing we saw were. Tens of thousand of results. Commented Mar 18 at 17:51
  • Yes, a lot of examples, use of the word prescriptivist but no explanation as to why the verb is plural coming after phrases like "the only thing". I explained both the grammar and to boot cited an ELU answer. Go figure...
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 18 at 20:41
  • @Lambie Please don't be bitter. Your answer was the first to say it's acceptable to use the plural verb "are" with a singular subject, and you got 7 upvotes and 7 downvotes. Your examples with All you need are/were are, in my eyes, perfectly grammatical, I don't see a singular subject with a plural verb. I don't think why OP's sentence the plural verb is in fact an example of inverse copular construction. John, Peter and Sam are the plumbers. Would you use is here?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 18 at 21:10
  • Some would argue that "Locusts are the only thing we haven't seen.” should instead be “Locusts are the only things we haven't seen.” Unlike the examples you cited from Wikipedia, I found examples that are similar to the OP's sentence. And, you may disagree, but I did attempt to explain the construction.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 18 at 21:15
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The only thing we haven't seen are locusts.

You are right that we should use is as the subject the only thing is singular. The noun locusts, however, is not the object; it's the subject complement. Copulas are intransitive.

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  • 1
    Do you mean both "IS" and "ARE" correct?
    – Yunus
    Commented Mar 17 at 15:15
  • 3
    @Yunus - only 'is' is correct. You could say or write 'The only things we haven't seen are locusts'. Commented Mar 17 at 15:28
  • @MichaelHarvey, Thanks, I appreciate it.
    – Yunus
    Commented Mar 17 at 17:21
4

"The only thing we haven't seen are locusts."

Locusts are the only thing we haven't seen.

Other examples:

  • All we need for the party are clams.
  • Clams are all we need for the party.
  • All you told me were lies.
  • Lies are all you told me.

And some examples from all we need is and all we need are:

  • All we need are a few symbols here and there.

  • All we need are words like 'reason' and 'evidence'.

  • All we need are the numbers.

See the full ELU answer.

Wikipedia

In linguistics, inverse copular constructions, named after Moro (1997), are a type of inversion in English where canonical SCP word order (subject-copula-predicative expression, e.g. Fred is the plumber) is reversed in a sense, so that one appears to have the order PCS instead (predicative expression-copula-subject, e.g. The plumber is Fred). The verb in these constructions is always the copula be (am, are, is, was, were). Inverse copular constructions are intriguing because they render the distinction between subject and predicative expression difficult to maintain. The confusion has led to focused study of these constructions,2 and their impact on the theory of grammar may be great since they appear to challenge the initial binary division of the sentence (S) into a subject noun phrase (NP) and a predicate verb phrase (VP) (S → NP VP), this division being at the core of all phrase structure grammars (as opposed to dependency grammars, which do not acknowledge the binary division).

Inverse copular constructions involve nouns and noun phrases, but they do not allow the post-copula nominal to be a personal pronoun:

a. The cause of the riot is a picture on the wall.
b. A picture on thewall is the cause of the riot. - Inverse copular construction
c. *A picture on the wall is it. - Post-verb subject cannot be a personal pronoun.
a. Fred is the plumber.
b. The plumber is Fred. - Inverse copular construction
c. *The plumber is he. - Post-verb subject cannot be a personal pronoun.

The defining trait of the inverse copular constructions is that two counts of inversion appear to have occurred: the normal subject has inverted to a post-verb position, and the predicative nominal has inverted to the pre-verb position. The verb is a finite form of the copula 'be' (am, are, is, was, were). This type of inversion is generally NOT possible with other verbs.

Wikipedia

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    This answer is totally wrong.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Mar 17 at 21:12
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    @Astralbee Is it? Why? I'm not an English grammarian but the logic in this answer appears sound, and the quote correct. Commented Mar 18 at 4:27
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    @Astralbee Well, arguably you do not "completely rewrite the sentence" but revert " two counts of inversion" (Wikipedia) in PCS to restore the standard order of an English sentence. Once the standard order SCP is established, it is evident that the formal subject is a plural which would require a plural verb. If we believe the Wikipedia article (which must be correct -- I have written it only yesterday! ;-) ), Englieh grammar requires that "the copula agrees with the singular predicative expression to its left as opposed to with the plural subject to its right"... Commented Mar 18 at 10:47
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    @Peter Yes, thing is undoubtedly the subject. But as described in CoolHandLouis’ answer to the related question and linguisticturn’s on ELU, that doesn’t necessarily matter in this particular construction. There are few cases where going with straight-up subject–verb agreement would sound wrong, but there are enough cases where proximity agreement doesn’t sound wrong that blanket statements that subject–verb agreement is the only option cannot be upheld. Commented Mar 18 at 12:05
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    @Astralbee No, I am saying that native speakers naturally say this all the time, with absolutely no notion that it is ‘wrong’, and this by definition makes it not wrong. It is not a mistake, but a very common and easily reproducible part of English grammar. To claim that it is wrong is akin to saying that it’s ‘wrong’ to end a sentence with a preposition, despite the fact that native speakers do it all the time. Yes, people make mistakes in their own languages; this just isn’t one of them. Commented Mar 18 at 21:27
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To answer your question regarding why "The only thing" is followed by "are":

The most likely explanation is that the speaker simply preferred to express it in that manner, and the statement was directly quoted by the reporter. There likely isn't a deeper reason beyond the speaker's preference.

As a native speaker, I also tried saying the sentence with both "are" and "is" to gauge how each felt to me. I believe "are" sounds better because it creates a smoother rhythm in the sentence. Almost like it's a haiku.

Read this out-loud like it's a poem.

The only thing

We haven't seen

Are locusts

When speaking, the rules serve as guidelines. If our speech sounds okay and the meaning is conveyed, it's generally acceptable. The only real-world situations I've encountered where strict adherence to rules matters are when the writing is intended for widespread publication, is a formal document like a resume or contract, or is a school assignment.

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