remain;remains

1.Where they came from and why they disappeared __________ an open question.

a. remain

b. remains

Are  they  both  correct?

2. Where  they came from and why they disappeared ____________ open questions.

a. remain

b. remains

Are they both correct?

Thanks!

Original Post

Hi, Kis,

According to grammar rules, "where they came from and why they disappeared" is a compound subject and should take a plural verb, so "remain" would appear to be the answer in the case of sentence (1). However, this sounds very odd to me:

1. ?Where they came from and why they disappeared remain an open question.

Why odd? Because "where they came from" and "why they disappeared" are actually two questions, and this seems to contradict the singular noun in the predicate, which refers to one question.

Checking GB, I've only been able to find a plural subject with the predicate "remain an open question" in sentences where the subject is not formed by actual questions and where "open question" means "pending issue," for example:

  • The true origins of the modern privilege against self-incrimination thus remain an open question. (Source)
  • In Serbia, however, the borders remain an open question... (Source)

If instead of "an open question" we had another singular complement, like "a mystery," the sentence would sound much better:

1a. Where they came from and why they disappeared remain a mystery.

Curiously, since "remain" is a linking verb in these sentences (meaning continue to be) the subject could be extraposed and, in that case, the verb would take the singular form because of the presence of anticipatory "it":

1b. It remains a mystery where they came from and why they disappeared.

In the case of sentence (2), there is no doubt that "remain" will be used, because the subject is plural and semantically coherent with "open questions":

2. Where they came from and why they disappeared remain open questions.

Gustavo, Contributor posted:
Curiously, since "remain" is a linking verb in these sentences (meaning continue to be) the subject could be extraposed and, in that case, the verb would take the singular form because of the presence of anticipatory "it":

1b. It remains a mystery where they came from and why they disappeared.

Kis's question about subject-verb agreement here is undeniably difficult, and I like how you've treated it above, Gustavo.

I was reading a syntax dissertation over the holidays (Stephen Abney's The English Noun Phrase in Its Sentential Aspect) and was pleased to see the author state that compound "that"-clause subjects take singular agreement. Abney contrasts this with compound Acc-ing ("fused participle") subjects and compound Poss-ing (gerund) subjects:

Quote:

a. That John came and that Mary left bothers/*bother me
b. John coming (so often) and Mary leaving (so often) bothers/*bother me.
c. John's coming and Mary's leaving *bothers/bother me.      (p. 175)

Unfortunately, he doesn't discuss the case of compound free-relative-clause subjects or the case of compound embedded-question subjects, and somehow I think that looking for that information in my grammar books will prove to be a wild goose chase (though I might decide to give it a go). In the meantime, in the spirit of your revision (1b), Gustavo, I'd like to suggest these two:

(3) What remains an open question is where they came from and why they disappeared.

(4) What remain open questions are where they came from and why they disappeared.

David, Moderator posted:

Kis's question about subject-verb agreement here is undeniably difficult, and I like how you've treated it above, Gustavo.

Thank you so much, David. This compliment of yours is the best medicine for my recent indigestion from spaghetti and meatballs.

Thank you for sharing that syntax dissertation you read over the holidays. The very title, The English Noun Phrase in Its Sentential Aspect, which I find superb, already suggests that very interesting grammatical assertions will be made. This trio of sentences is fantastic:

Quote:

a. That John came and that Mary left bothers/*bother me.
b. John coming (so often) and Mary leaving (so often) bothers/*bother me.
c. John's coming and Mary's leaving *bothers/bother me.      (p. 175)

The use of singular or plural verbs makes a lot of sense, with the gerunds being the most nominal of the three subject components and thus requiring a plural verb. I also liked your pseudo-clefts (3) and (4).

My understanding is that (a) can only take a plural verb if reference is made not to the events but to the statements, as if the subject had a metalinguistic value (in line with my impression that Kis's sentences made reference to the questions themselves rather than to what was being asked):

d. That John came and that Mary left are assertions that can hardly be upheld. I can find traces of neither of them.

Otherwise, the multiple components of the subject will be understood as a unit:

e. That John came and that Mary left is unbelievable. They go everywhere together!

or, combining Abney's sentence (a) and your proposal of a pseudo-cleft:

a'. What bothers me is that John came and that Mary left. (which can be understood as: It is the joint occurrence of John's presence and Mary's absence that bothers me.)

Gustavo, Contributor posted:
My understanding is that (a) can only take a plural verb if reference is made not to the events but to the statements, as if the subject had a metalinguistic value (in line with my impression that Kis's sentences made reference to the questions themselves rather than to what was being asked):

That sounds right to me, Gustavo. I wanted to share a sentence I came upon yesterday that relates to our topic here, a rare instance of a sentence with a compound embedded-question subject. The quotation is from the twenty-ninth chapter of The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, which was published well over a hundred years ago, in 1906. The sentence itself appears in bold; I simply think it's important to see the surrounding context in order to understand the sentence.

Happily, Sinclair opts for the plural verb, and I think this is in keeping with your sense of there being a metalinguistic value to the subject, almost as if the two embedded questions were in apposition to the noun phrase the questions, with which he might even have begun the sentence. I think it's interesting to consider whether he would have opted for the singular ("was") if the predicate had been "[be] unclear": "What he thought of it and what he suffered was/were unclear."

Anyway, here's the quote. Enjoy!

"Jurgis recollected how, when he had first come to Packingtown, he had stood and watched the hog-killing, and thought how cruel and savage it was, and come away congratulating himself that he was not a hog; now his new acquaintance showed him that a hog was just what he had been—one of the packers' hogs. What they wanted from a hog was all the profits that could be got out of him; and that was what they wanted from the working-man, and also that was what they wanted from the public. What the hog thought of it, and what he suffered, were not considered; and no more was it with labor, and no more with the purchaser of meat. That was true everywhere in the world, but it was especially true in Packingtown; there seemed to be something about the work of slaughtering that tended to ruthlessness and ferocity—it was literally the fact that in the methods of the packers a hundred human lives did not balance a penny of profit. When Jurgis had made himself familiar with the Socialist literature, as he would very quickly, he would get glimpses of the Beef Trust from all sorts of aspects, and he would find it everywhere the same; it was the incarnation of blind and insensate Greed."
Upton Sinclair

 

David, Moderator posted:

I think it's interesting to consider whether he would have opted for the singular ("was") if the predicate had been "[be] unclear": "What he thought of it and what he suffered was/were unclear."

Thank you very much, David, for sharing that quote. It's an extraordinary coincidence that you should have found that text.

Personally, I'd opt for the singular above, as "unclear" clearly refers to the content of those questions and not to those clauses as questions. With the verb "be," the best proof is, I think, extraposing the subject:

- What he thought of it and what he suffered was unclear.
- It was unclear what he thought of it and what he suffered.

David, Moderator posted:

Happily, Sinclair opts for the plural verb, and I think this is in keeping with your sense of there being a metalinguistic value to the subject, almost as if the two embedded questions were in apposition to the noun phrase the questions, with which he might even have begun the sentence. 

That's a clever remark. With compound "that"- clauses, I've been thinking that if we can place "the fact" before, then the predicate will be singular, as reference will be being made to the actions involved. Instead, if we can place "the assertions" or "the statements," the plural will be required, as reference will be being made to those individual assertions or statements considering their metalinguistic value:

- That John came and that Mary left is unbelievable. (The fact that John came and that Mary left is unbelievable. Also: It is unbelievable that John came and that Mary left.)

- That John came and that Mary left are lies. (The statements/assertions that John came and that Mary left are lies.)

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