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I wrote a sentence similar to the titular, and got feedback that it should be:

  • "Fruits are an evolutionary mechanism, which ARE ..."

in order to keep consistent plurality (with the plural "Fruits").

But that sounds off to me -- I was matching the plurality to singular "mechanism". That is, I was intending to use #1 of the following:

  1. "Fruits are an evolutionary mechanism, which is ..."

  2. "Fruits are an evolutionary mechanism, which are ..."

What is the correct way of phrasing this sentence, and why?

  • I don't see any sentence. Also more context would help, as there may be better ways to phrase what you are trying to say. – user3169 May 14 '15 at 1:13
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    You need to provide the rest of the sentence. If that "which is/are …" is a supplementary relative clause, then whether it is the singular "is" or the plural "are" depends on what the anchor for that supplementary clause is. – F.E. May 14 '15 at 1:15
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    I"m a native speaker, and I find the same thing to be true. When you put a plural noun between a singular subject and a verb, the verb often sounds misconjugated, even when it isn't. – J.R. May 14 '15 at 1:42
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    For your example where the relative element is the subject in the relative clause: In general, the number of the verb in the supplementary relative clause will depend on the number of its antecedent. That is, if the antecedent is plural (e.g. a plural NP), then the relative clause will use a plural verb; and if the antecedent is singular (e.g. a singular NP or a clause), then the relative clause will use a singular verb. – F.E. May 14 '15 at 2:20
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    Rather than voting to close this because you can't choose "is" or "are" without knowing the rest of the sentence, please consider that that is the answer (along with an explanation of why). ELL is for people who are learning English, for whom the confusion in the question is exactly what a good answer can help them with. We do that by explicitly addressing that confusion, not by requiring that the question be purged of that confusion. – Ben Kovitz May 14 '15 at 13:10
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As it is, and as others have pointed out, it's difficult to know the correct answer without knowing the rest of the sentence.

If you want to keep the same arrangement, mentally replace "which" with what's being described in the second part of the sentence. What's happening when using "which" is that you're replacing the subject in the second clause, so if you know what's being described, you'll know which tense to use:

Fruits are an evolutionary mechanism, [fruits] are...

Fruits are an evolutionary mechanism, [this evolutionary mechanism] is...

Alternatively, what might help is to simplify the sentence so that it's clearer to keep your subject more obvious.

The easiest way to do this is to remove "which"... and you have a couple of options:

If "fruits" is the subject of the sentence, the verb should agree with that. You have a couple of options

Rewrite it as an appositive (note, this will only work if "fruits" is the subject):

Fruits, an evolutionary mechanism, are the fleshy seed-associated structures of a plant that are sweet or sour and edible in the raw state.

[paraphrased from Wikipedia]

Part of the issue is that the two potential subjects are singular and plural... so if you rearrange the sentence, that will change:

Fruits are the fleshy seed-associated structures of a plant that are sweet or sour and edible in the raw state. These are considered an evolutionary mechanism.

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    @Uhwad You should wait to accept an answer for a while! There's no rush. The requests for more info that you've been given aren't unreasonable, you should consider doing so. – Catija May 14 '15 at 1:43
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    …especially as this answer doesn't in fact hit the spot. You need the rest of the sentence before you can know which to use. – Tetsujin May 14 '15 at 8:34
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It depends on what which refers to.

Both of these sentences are correct:

Fruits are an evolutionary mechanism, which is as ancient as the hills.

Fruits are an evolutionary mechanism, which are produced only by flowering plants.

The choice of is/are tells a listener which noun which refers to: fruits or mechanism. One of the main uses of subject-verb agreement is to remove the ambiguity of references from one part of a sentence to another. Subject-verb agreement is something to use deliberately for clarity, not merely a rule to follow.


I don't know what meaning you intend to put into the rest of your sentence, but both of my examples above are slightly clumsy, especially the second one. In sentences of the form "A is/are B", where both A and B are nouns, people usually feel a little uncomfortable when one of them is singular and the other is plural, even though it's correct and sometimes necessary. Here is another answer I wrote about this (also involving fruit). In other words, the trouble actually starts in "fruits are an evolutionary mechanism..."

You can avoid the trouble in this case by using "fruit" as a mass noun, making it singular:

Fruit is an evolutionary mechanism as ancient as the hills.

Fruit is an evolutionary mechanism produced only by flowering plants.

2

I was matching the plurality to singular "mechanism". That is, I was intending to use #1 of the following:

  1. "Fruits are an evolutionary mechanism, which is ..."

  2. "Fruits are an evolutionary mechanism, which are ..."

What is the correct way of phrasing this sentence, and why?

ANSWER: You should probably phrase it the way you had originally intended, which is with version #1 with "is" since you had intended to use the prior nominal "evolutionary mechanism" of the main clause to be the antecedent of the relative word "which".

Your example seems to involve a supplementary relative clause. In your example, the relative element is the subject in the relative clause. And so, in general, the number of the tensed verb in the relative clause will be the same as the number of its antecedent. That is:

  • If the antecedent is plural (e.g. a plural noun), then the relative clause will usually use a plural verb; and if the antecedent is singular (e.g. a singular noun or a clause), then the relative clause will usually use a singular verb.

In your specific case, you intended to use the main clause's "evolutionary mechanism" as the antecedent for the relative "which", and so, the relative clause's tensed verb should be "is" -- which is what you had intended to do all along.


LONG VERSION:


[CAVEAT: This answer post is working on the assumption that your question involves determining the number of the tensed verb ("is" versus "are") in the supplementary relative clause. And so, I'm assuming that the ellipsis in your example is representing the rest of that relative clause.]


TOPIC: integrated versus supplementary relative clause

Along one dimension, there are two main types of relative clause:

  1. integrated relative clause:

    • Traditional grammar uses the term "restrictive" (instead of "integrated"), but their terminology is misleading because many "restrictive" relative clauses are not restrictive in their usage.

    • An integrated relative clause is often, or usually, integrated into the noun phrase (NP) that contains the relative's antecedent, e.g. "The boy [who had shot the dog]". Sometimes the relative clause has been raised up into clause structure so that it is no longer part of the NP that contains the relative's antecedent, e.g. "A stranger came into the room [who looked just like Uncle Oswald]" (CGEL page 1066, [22.i]).

  2. supplementary relative clause:

    • Traditional grammar uses the term "nonrestrictive" (instead of "supplementary"), but their terminology is misleading.

    • A supplementary relative clause is not integrated into the noun phrase (NP) that contains the relative's antecedent, nor is it integrated into the clause structure that contains the relative's antecedent. It is detached from the main clause, which is usually done by punctuation.

The rest of this answer post will deal with the supplementary relative clause, since that is the type that's involved in the OP's example.


TOPIC: clause as an antecedent for the supplementary relative clause

The supplementary relative clause can have many different types of antecedent. One type that the supplementary relative can have as antecedent but the integrated relative cannot is that of clause.

CGEL page 1060:

Clauses

Only supplementary relatives can have a clause as antecedent:

[5] He said he'd drafted the report, [which I knew to be untrue]. -- (supplementary)

The antecedent of which is the clause he'd drafted the report; the relative clause in such cases can only be of the supplementary type, with a separate intonation contour.


A supplementary relative can also have a nominal as its antecedent (a nominal is usually the antecedent for an integrated relative).

And so, for your specific example, the supplementary relative could have as its antecedent one of three possible candidates:

  1. the clause: "Fruits are an evolutionary mechanism"

  2. the nominal: "Fruits"

  3. the nominal: "evolutionary mechanism"

CONCLUSION: It depends on what is in the rest of the supplementary relative clause of your example and on the intention of the writer, as to whether the number of the relative's head verb is singular or plural ("is" versus "are").


NOTE: CGEL is the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum (et al.), The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

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