Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: what (2).

what (2). Today: Singular “what” Uses. Part A: In a Noun Clause Followed by a Singular Predicate Noun. This construction is the easiest: “what” means “the thing that” and takes a singular verb. E.g.: “Unfortunately, what is needed is a return to terms and manners now maybe almost lost to our society.” Elliott Brack, “Phone Manners Show We’re Losing War for Civility,” Atlanta J.-Const., 27 Jan. 1997, at J2. Part B: In a Noun Clause Followed by a Plural Predicate Noun. In this construction, as in Part A, “what” means “the thing that.” But the main verb is governed by the plural noun that follows it. That is, the construction exemplifies inversion — e.g.: o “But what worries restaurateurs more are customers like Eric Wyka.” Molly O’Neill, “Recession and Guilt Pare Dining Trade and Menus,” N.Y. Times, 31 Mar. 1991, at 1. (This could also be rendered without the inversion: “Customers like Eric Wyka are what worries restaurateurs more.”) o “Unfortunately, what’s needed are more working senators who will support it.” “Only Congress Can Plug Campaign Cash Loopholes,” San Antonio Express-News, 22 Mar. 1997, at B6. (This could also be rendered without the inversion: “More working senators who will support it are what is needed.”) H.W. Fowler would have recommended rewriting the first of those sentences in this way: “What worries restaurateurs more is customers like Eric Wyka.” (Modern English Usage 1st ed. at 705-06.) That, in Fowler’s view, would have been better because customers is a predicate noun that, despite being plural, shouldn’t affect the verb preceding it. But neither version can be called wrong today, and O’Neill’s original sentence typifies modern usage more than the Fowlerian revision does. Next: Plural “what” Uses. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “The scholar’s mistrust of the popularizer is often justified and certainly understandable. Yet there is no better exercise for the thinker in any subject than to try and explain to those who know nothing of his terms exactly what he is doing.” T.W.H. Holland, The Nature of English 7 (1967). ====================
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