Reply to "is or are?"

Lee,

I think you're confusing a couple of issues here.  Let me try this again, this time being less stingy with the quotation marks:

1': We do not make them, if “we” means "our conscious minds".
2': We do not make them, if “we” is understood to mean "our conscious minds".
3': We do not make them, if “we” refers to "our conscious minds".

Here, as with my previous examples, "we", although a plural pronoun, represents a singular concept that requires a singular verb.  Now, by putting "our conscious minds" in quotation marks, it should be clear that the same applies to that phrase; although it is a plural noun phrase, here it stands for "the phrase 'our conscious minds'" or "the concept of 'our conscious minds'", either of which must be seen as singular.

My examples can all be inverted:

1'': We do not make them, if "our conscious minds" is what is meant by "we".
2'': We do not make them, if "our conscious minds" is what is understood to be meant by "we".
3'': We do not make them, if "our conscious minds" is what is referred to by "we".

You see that the inversion causes "our conscious minds" to replace "we" as the subject of the "if" clause, but the clause still requires a singular verb.

These inversions also cause the verbs "mean" and "refer" to be passivized as "meant" and referred", which in turn requires that the original subject become the object of a prepositional phrase of agency ("by 'we'").  My comment "I am not comfortable with the construct 'by "we" is meant'" in my earlier post meant that I do not find such a phrase of agency acceptable as the subject of an "if" clause, or any similar subordinate clause.

You wrote:

We can say like this: The report fails to define what is meant by the term ‘key issues’, instead of The report fails to define what the term 'key issues' mean.

I see three basic versions of your main example:

A: The report fails to define what the term 'key issues' mean.
B: The report fails to define what is meant by the term ‘key issues’.
C: The report fails to define what by ‘key issues’ is meant.

(A) is ungrammatical.  The subject "the term 'key issues'" is singular and requires a singular verb:

A': The report fails to define what the term 'key issues' means.

(B) is exactly as you stated it, and conforms to my own recommendations.

I don't really like (C), but it's not an exact parallel with the original example sentence, and doesn't sound quite as bad.

DocV

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