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Sometimes I get confused by the usage of "what" as a pronoun. Specifically, I am not sure if "what" stands for "the thing that" or for "the things that" or for both.

For example, which of the following are acceptable:

  1. "What makes her laugh is dirty jokes."

  2. "What makes her laugh are dirty jokes."

  3. "What make her laugh is dirty jokes."

  4. "What make her laugh are dirty jokes."

And some corresponding examples which might or might not make a difference to the answer:

  1. "What makes her laugh is dirty jokes and wet puppies."

  2. "What makes her laugh are dirty jokes and wet puppies."

  3. "What make her laugh is dirty jokes and wet puppies."

  4. "What make her laugh are dirty jokes and wet puppies."

  • There's also some related info in the 2002 reference grammar CGEL, page 505, examples [18.ii.a-c]: "[What is/are needed] is/are managers with new ideas and the will to apply them", where both singular and plural verbs (in any combination) in both the matrix and the subordinate clauses are acceptable when the predicative complement (PC) is a plural NP (such as "managers with new ideas and the will to apply them" in the CGEL example). I'm assuming that your example would have used a plural PC if it had been filled out for us. – F.E. Feb 15 '15 at 10:32
  • Your question also involves the (2nd) issue of whether or not the word "what" can be considered in some contexts to be plural in number. So, your question seems to involve both of those issues--plural "what", and "is" vs "are"--as they relate to your example. – F.E. Feb 15 '15 at 19:56
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I think it becomes more clear whether it's are or is when you phrase it as a question.

What makes her laugh? Dirty jokes.

This is the same question as

What (is the thing that) makes her laugh? Dirty jokes are the thing (singular) that makes her laugh.

You would use 'are' if there are multiple things that make her laugh. Here's another example.

What (are the things that) make her smile? Puppies, kittens and babies are the things (plural) that make her smile.

In other words, it's not whether the thing that makes her laugh is singular or plural, it's how many different things are there that make her laugh.

What makes her laugh is cartoons.

What makes her laugh are dirty jokes, slapstick comedy and bad puns.

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    The question "What make her smile?" does not read well. I would always say that "what" is singular. – AndyT Oct 9 '15 at 7:27
  • @AndyT what do you mean? I never said "what make her smile". – James Oct 9 '15 at 8:08
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    You gave an example "What (is the thing that) makes her laugh?", implying that the brackets can be removed to give "What makes her laugh?". Fine. You then gave an example of "What (are the things that) make her smile?" implying that the brackets can be removed to give "What make her smile?". Not fine. – AndyT Oct 9 '15 at 15:41
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What makes her laugh are dirty jokes.

The meaning: We hear her laughing right now. We both know that she is laughing right now because she has just heard some jokes. I want to say to you that in my view the jokes she is laughing to are dirty.

What makes her laugh is dirty jokes.

The meaning: When she hears dirty jokes, she usually laughs.

[What make her laugh] are dirty jokes. (WRONG)

..this sentence is wrong because the verb make is inside the content clause (in brackets) and should correspond to the subject word what.


Reference:


Some jargon.

The verb be has a "specifying" use:

What I need right now is a good sleep. (I specify what I need right now)

...and an "ascriptive" use:

What I'm doing right now is interesting. (I describe what I'm doing; I'm ascribing some property to the content clause "What I'm doing right now")

Imagine I've bought some jewels - several of them. And suddenly an expert says:

What you have bought is fake. (ascriptive use)

..this sentence would be equal in meaning to

What you have bought are fake jewels. (the experts says to me, holding the jewels in his hand. He describes the jewels. He ascribes some property to them: the property is "fake")

But imagine I bought something while I was very drunk. I wake up and cannot understand why my bank account has diminished. I call my friends with whom I was drinking, and inquire what did I use the money for. They laugh and reply:

"What have I bought, guys?"
"What you have bought is fake jewels. A wagonload of 'em. We tried to dissuade you, but it was impossible." (the specifying use of the verb be)

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    Thanks very much; I think I thus get some feeling of the usage. :) – Megadeth Feb 14 '15 at 7:58
  • @YLChou - you're welcome, but this question is very tough; please wait for further answers before making your final vote. I'm not a native speaker of English. – CowperKettle Feb 14 '15 at 7:59
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    @CopperKettle "What makes her laugh are dirty jokes," somewhat bothers me. To demonstrate why it bothers me, I came up with this alternative: *The thing that makes her laugh are dirty jokes. But it's just my gut feeling. Frankly, being another non-native speaker makes me feel like I know nothing at all about this one. – Damkerng T. Feb 14 '15 at 9:35
  • @DamkerngT. - the sentence is indeed strange; writing this answer was an "instrument flight" for me, I'll need to get it run by past Snailboat. (0: – CowperKettle Feb 14 '15 at 9:39
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    I'll need to run it by Snailboat. free dictionary – user6951 Feb 15 '15 at 18:51

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