Wh-clauses as subject: singular or plural verb?

 

Q:

If two wh-clauses appear as the subject of a sentence, is the verb singular or plural?

Two or more wh-words might occur side by side and function as (part of) subject. Such subjects may be finite or nonfinite clauses: are they plural or singular in number?

To take when-and-where subjects for example:

1.

When and where it first became the conventional system that a weary or inattentive infant in a class must have its face smoothed downward with a hot hand, or when and where the conventional volunteer boy first beheld such system in operation, and became inflamed with a sacred zeal to administer it, matters not.

2.

It is yet a long and weary path, and when and where to strike it is now our greatest difficulty.

3.

It read like a love affair, an assignation, though when and where were a blank.




Chuncan Feng
jhfcc@mail.jhptt.zj.cn
www.eduscitech.com
China
Posted 22 February 2003
A:

Usually, but not always, two wh-clauses would have a singular verb.

We need to apply both a semantic rule and a grammatical rule to the sentences.

Sentence 1 is stylistically complicated, but can be paraphrased as

When and where [the idea] that a weary or inattentive infant in a class must have its face smoothed downward with a hot hand first became the conventional system.

or

When and where the conventional volunteer boy first beheld such system in operation, and became inflamed with a sacred zeal to administer it, doesn't matter.

Now that we understand its structure, let's look at the original version of Sentence 1, correctly punctuated:

When and where it first became the conventional system that a weary or inattentive infant in a class must have its face smoothed downward with a hot hand, or when and where the conventional volunteer boy first beheld such system in operation and became inflamed with a sacred zeal to administer it, matters not.

Each of the two clauses introduced by when and where can be considered as a single unit of thought, and therefore the verb should be the singular, is. There's a further reason for using the singular verb. The grammatical rule decrees that with two subjects separated by or, the verb should be singular-except when at least one of the subjects is a plural noun. This is not the case here. Therefore the verb should be singular: first, because each occurrence of when and where is seen as a single unit of thought, and second, because the two wh- noun clauses are separated by or, which requires a singular verb.

Sentences 2 and 3 do not have a grammatical rule as much as a semantic one. The choice depends on whether the speaker or writer considers the two pairs to be a single unit, or as separate entities.

In sentence 2, the writer conceives of the ideas of when and where to strike as a single issue and therefore uses the singular verb is.

Sentence 3 contains an ellipsis-an omission of material that might follow when and where. Each of these ideas (e.g., when the (imagined) love affair/ assignation might have taken place plus where it might have taken place) is considered important in its own right and is treated as a separate idea. This view of the ideas as separate prompts the plural verb were.

This is not the only possible view. The two ideas-when and where-could just as easily be considered a single unit, and the verb could have been was. The choice of verb number depends on the writer's view of the ideas.

I've found a couple of similar usages in Google with how and whether:

How and whether to use such a consultation to discuss drinking is trickier.

How and whether to model other agents is a ubiquitous issue in MAS.

In general, then, nominal clauses with pairs of wh-words as grammatical subject take a singular verb, unless the two ideas are viewed as separate.

Marilyn Martin

 

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