Made-up rules are what get on my nerves

What many word lovers love most are books. But what some word lovers love most is, apparently, a tidy bookshelf. Everything in its place. A single possible spot for any book. And, similarly, some language lovers love a nice tidy grammar, one where there’s only one option at any given juncture.

I understand the inclination. I’m an editor, and I know that tidiness is valuable. But I also know that it needs to serve effectiveness. If your drive for tidiness reduces the expressive potential of the language and proscribes something that people do with good effect, I do not think you are doing the good work.

I’ve harped on this in many of my articles on grammar. Lately I’ve encountered yet another instance of forced tidiness that I don’t think serves a good purpose. On a couple of occasions, people have said that they learned that what as a relative pronoun subject always takes a singular verb. In other words, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what makes a good martini is correct and, according to them, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what make a good martini is not.

Before you say “What are they thinking?” or “What do they mean?” remember that many instances of what followed by a verb are inversions. It’s an interrogative in those cases, and the verb is conjugated to the noun after it. The deep structure of the two questions I just presented – how they line up before the raising caused by the interrogative – is “they are thinking what” and “they [do] mean what.” So that doesn’t help us.

It is true that the majority of cases of what as a relative pronoun subject – in other words, replaceable by the thing(s) that – do take a singular. This is because most of the time, even if it’s referring to a plural or to multiple nouns, it’s presenting them as a single fact: Dragon dice are what takes Monopoly to the next level (meaning that the fact of having them is what does it); Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what makes my spaghetti sauce stand out (meaning that the use of them is what does it); etc.

However, this is not true all the time. And what does not have anything about it that makes it intrinsically singular. It doesn’t even have a plural counterpart; that has those, but what does not have whose. No, it’s capable of taking any number, just like who.

So, just as The peevers are who tire me the most is defensible grammar, The birds are what sing in the park is fine, and so is The memories are what get me every time. (You may object that those sentences could be rewritten as The birds sing in the park and The memories get me every time, but if you don’t recognize that those have different focus and flow and can take a different place in a narrative, don’t try to be an editor, please.)

Likewise, all of the following examples from real published books are fine:

  • Desire and ill will are what make you move, what make you tired.
  • The things that matter most are not always what get your attention.
  • The theory of a model of psychotherapy might suggest that behavioral tasks are what make the difference.
  • Obstacles are what get in the way of characters achieving their goals.
  • Differences of opinion are what make interesting letters pages.
  • These relationships are what make life worth living.
  • Our gods are not just our goals – they are what make our ideals ideal.

You could object that a singular verb could be used in each of these. This is true, but I could also replace dry vermouth with sweet vermouth and you would still have a cocktail. It just wouldn’t be the same one.

It matters whether we’re treating some plural entity as a diverse plural or as a grouped single fact. Such subtle differences are what make English so expressive.

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