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It is a pretty big floor and you are just running around praying for a terminal which are surprisingly rare.

So, I wrote this sentence in a forum long time ago and now that I look at it again, I am concerned for its grammatical well being. Is my usage of the verb 'are' (highlighted in the sentence) correct?

The reason I ask is because it follows the singular noun "terminal". But, I think it is evident from the usage of "a terminal" that there is more than one terminal and somehow, the usage of "are" in the above sentence sounds correct aurally, but I don't know for sure.

  • What does "surprisingly rare" refer to, "terminal" or "running around" (the situation in general)? As written it could be either. There may be a better way to write what you intend. – user3169 May 20 '16 at 22:53
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I think either one could be OK.

Expanding it out both ways to make it more clear:

  • " ... you are just running around praying for a terminal; terminals are surprisingly rare."
  • " ... you are just running around praying for a terminal; a terminal is surprisingly rare."

The first version sounds more natural to my ear; really you're just contracting that.

I think adding a comma could help:

It is a pretty big floor and you are just running around praying for a terminal, which are surprisingly rare.

It feels more clear that "terminal" is the antecedent here.

So even though the antecedent is singular, you're implying a plural antecedent, which I think is OK in many cases.

I could say

"I'm looking for a chipmunk, which are suprisingly rare."

In this case, chipmunks are surprisingly rare.

"I'm looking for a chipmunk, which is surprisingly rare."

In this case, it's the act of me looking for a chipmunk which is surprisingly rare.

"I'm looking for a chipmunk which is surprisingly rare."

In this case, I'm looking for a specific chipmunk which, surprisingly, happens to be rare.

I think it makes sense to use the plurally conjugated verb when it's implied you're talking about a class of things. You were looking for "a terminal", but it's the class of things, "terminals", which are rare.

Hope that made sense. : )

  • Thank you. That did make sense :). The usage of "is" to distinguish between the act of looking vs what you are looking for was very insightful. – Thiagarajan May 21 '16 at 15:19
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The composition of the sentence makes it appear that the relative pronoun which represents a terminal, a singular noun subject. But it's followed by a verb in plural form. So some people would feel there is something non-standard about the sentence if they noticed it or read it carefully.

Yes, we can reason out that there exist multiple terminals, but a terminal is placed in relation to which in such a way that readers would often fail to smoothly and quickly determine that you are talking about multiple terminals when you attribute rarity.

Therefore, some "educated" or "sophisticated" readers would find it unacceptable. Just as most of us would find unacceptable: I have a husband, which are great.

You could improve the sentence with punctuation, which can serve to more strongly break the apparent connection between the singular noun and the pronoun. For example:

You are just running around praying for a terminal--which are surprisingly rare around here.

Some re-ordering could accomplish this even more effectively:

Terminals are surprisingly rare around here, and/so you are just running around the floor praying you'll find one.

Most good writers would instinctively choose an option that would avoid the potential problem.

Another alternative might be similar to:

You are praying you'll find one of the terminals, which are surprisingly rare.

In this case, the proximity of the plural noun with the pronoun renders clear their connection.

I've had help in improving this answer, for which I'm grateful.

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