Sally says "The thing that scares me the most are the little oranges in its stomach." at 4:50 in the TV drama "3rd Rock From the Sun S1E3 Dick's First Birthday". https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgj83qt7fqA

Please notice that "thing" is singular whereas "oranges" is plural. I'm wondering which one of the following statements about the sentence is correct.

  1. It is grammatically correct and perfectly makes sense.

  2. It is grammatically incorrect and most people frown upon it.

  3. It is grammatically incorrect, but most people think it is natural and don't care.

  4. Else.

  • 2
    Option 3 doesn't really make sense.
    – user230
    Dec 11, 2014 at 4:29
  • @snailboat So what do you think the correct answer is? Dec 11, 2014 at 10:36
  • Also, perhaps consider: "What scares me the most are the little oranges in its stomach", and "What scared me the most were the little oranges in its stomach" -- perhaps, maybe, could be interesting, for a rainy day. :)
    – F.E.
    Mar 10, 2015 at 9:43
  • And perhaps someone could provide an evaluation of: "The thing that scares me the most is the little oranges in its stomach." Is there a mismatch in number there, and if there is, is it acceptable?
    – F.E.
    Mar 10, 2015 at 9:51
  • Makoto, I hope you will reconsider accepting this answer, which claims that the sentence uses deliberate inversion for emphasis. I think that's quite wrong, and it gives you a false impression, both of common grammatical errors and of inversion for emphasis.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jan 10, 2016 at 22:11

4 Answers 4


It is grammatically incorrect, but most people think it is natural and don't care.

The simple subject is thing, which is singular, so the verb must be singular to agree with it. Notice that in the subordinate clause, scares is singular, agreeing with thing.

The speaker got confused because it seems strange to say that a singular thing "is" a plural like oranges. That's more than one orange, right? Perhaps the speaker could revise the sentence so the subject is "the things that scare me the most". But there are two problems with that. First, the idiomatic phrase is "the thing that scares me the most". If you say "the things that scare me the most", that's weaker, because then you aren't pointing out the #1 scariest thing. Second, the speaker starts saying the sentence before choosing the main verb. By the time the speaker has said "The thing that scares me the most", it's too late to change it. At that point, the speaker sees oranges coming up ahead, and scrambles to choose the verb. "Is" sounds wrong because of oranges; "are" sounds wrong because of thing. Oh no!! There's no time to think this through, so the speaker compromises and chooses a verb to agree with oranges, dimly sensing that something is wrong.

And then life goes on.


The grammar error is caused by a rough simplification of the sentence, which makes it much shorter. The simplified sentence from the question is grammatically incorrect, but good enough to understand it:

The thing that scares me the most are the little oranges in its stomach.

I see it as a contraction of the longer sentence:

The thing that scares me the most is the fact that there are the little oranges in its stomach.

The full sentence is grammatically correct. When leaving out part of it, the grammar breaks, but the remainder is still "somehow good enough" to understand it.
The use of "are" instead of "is" could be seen as an adjustment atempting to fix the grammar.

In summary:

It is grammatically incorrect, but most people easily understand it anyway, so they accept it as natural and don't care enough to complain.

Seems to be close enough to be seen as case 3:
It is grammatically incorrect, but most people think it is natural and don't care.
Or else, Else.


Technically, it should be "The thing that scares me the most is the little oranges in its stomach." because thing is a singular.

"the little oranges in its stomach" is a singular thing in this case, meaning having little oranges in his stomach is what scares her.

However "The things that scare me the most are the little oranges in its stomach." is also correct, except it implies that each individual orange in its stomach would be scary on its own.

  • Yes, typo. Corrected, thx!
    – DTRT
    Mar 10, 2015 at 15:15

For if knowledge is power, then a god am I. --- The Riddler, Batman Forever, 1995 

Please note that "a god" is a third-person noun phrase.  It does not agree with the verb form "am". 

Nevertheless, it is grammatically correct and perfectly sensible.  This is an inversion.  Normal word order for the clause is "I am a god."  The verb "am" agrees with its subject "I", and the third-person complement doesn't need to agree with anything.  The inversion simply lends emphasis to the complement.  The phrasing "a god am I" reads like "I am a god!

The same thing happens in your example:  Those little oranges are a scary thing.  The verb "are" agrees with the subject "oranges".  The complement "a scary thing" doesn't agree with anything.  This subject/verb agreement survives the inversion:  A scary thing are those little oranges. 

Was that over the top? 

That is the Riddler's next line in the scene.  Here, "over the top" means excessively dramatic or excessively emphatic.  That is an accurate description of his prior line.  He just delivered that emphatic word order in a strongly emphatic tone -- loud, rough, deep, and slow. 

The beauty of this example is that the source material itself immediately indicates the reason for the Riddler's use of the inversion.  He clearly intended the phrasing "a god am I" to be as emphatic, as poetic and as dramatic as possible.  He intends to be over the top.  He could have said "I am a god", but that ordinary statement lacks the additional impact that the inversion grants. 

The emphasis in your example is not over the top.  It's a natural emphasis that many native speakers understand and use instinctively, without even noticing or recognizing the grammatical mechanism involved. 

In other words, it's grammatically correct, perfectly sensible, and utterly common.

  • The inversion that you describe is indeed a strong form of emphasis. But I don't think that's what's happening in the "little oranges" sentence. I think most people hear that as an error, not as emphasis. People often hem and haw while or right after saying it. Understanding it as inversion would misunderstand the emphasis, which comes from the stock phrase "the thing that ---- the most is ----", which requires a singular verb for the emphasis to make sense. If "oranges" were the simple subject, you would say "things" to agree with it, spoiling the emphatic phrase.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jan 10, 2016 at 22:02
  • If you still think that the "oranges" sentence uses the "a god am I" inversion, could you add something more to your answer about why? Right now, it seems that you've run off on an unexplained analogy with something unrelated. What's the connection?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jan 10, 2016 at 22:06
  • What I don't understand is why you'd claim a stock phrase or cliché produces emphasis. Style guides consistently recommend avoiding them precisely because tired phrasing cannot produce either emphasis or clarity. What you don't seem to understand are that complements often precede the copula (cf. "a merry band are we" and "blessed are the meek") and that Sally is reacting not to the oranges themselves but to their placement and use. Had Sally let the verb agree with "things", the latter fact would not be evident in the sentence itself. Choice of subject is meaningful. Jan 12, 2016 at 17:05
  • I'm writing tersely because these are comments. Some more info is in my answer. Authorities and strict rules seldom describe the real conventions by which people communicate through the language or how speakers think about sentence. E.g. style guides recommend against clichés because people use them for emphasis so much, they lose their power. Inversion for emphasis is very strong but also very rare (which is partly why it's so strong). The cliché of "the thing that ---- the most is ----" communicates by its familiarity, and the singular verb is needed to give "the most" maximum impact.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jan 12, 2016 at 17:22
  • More to the point, grammatical errors involving subject-verb agreement are fairly common in practice, especially where there are two nouns that superficially seem to command agreement with the verb. This is an excellent question because it focuses on a common kind of grammatical error—which is truly valuable for a learner to know about. Textbooks seldom talk about this kind of error, and indeed you can't figure it out on the basis of rules alone. You can only understand what's going on through experience, familiarity with clichés, empathy for speakers engaged in everyday sloppy speech, etc.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jan 12, 2016 at 17:31

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