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General Writing and Grammar Help/verb/noun number agreement


I'm reading "Line of Fire," the latest "psychological fiction" novel by Stephen White, a competent and credible writer (a clinical psychologist, NYT bestseller, etc.). On page 71, writing about the initial therapy session with a new patient, he begins a paragraph with this sentence: "What make therapy an art are the choice points."
  I stumbled over that sentence because by the fifth word I sensed a typo. After backing up and reading the whole sentence, I understood that it wasn't a typo. I suppose it's grammatically correct ("choice points make therapy an art"), but it
just sounds weird. I would have written (and said aloud), "What makes therapy an art is the choice points," on the premise that, in this case, "the choice points" is a noun phrase constituting a unit that requires a singular verb ("makes").
  Am I right? Even if I'm technically wrong, might this be one of those instances in which how it sounds overrides the grammar rule---if only because most people, including educated ones, don't talk that way?

  I teach technical writing, and like to spice up my class with such examples. I'd appreciate your opinion.

Thanks much.

This is, alas, (1) a typo - just as you suspected. Or, it is (2) a clumsy construction that is, nonetheless, still incorrect as written.

Yes, you are right.



=What makes therapy an art= is a clause, acting as the subject of the sentence.  The skeleton of the sentence is:

[What makes therapy an art] is.

In a simpler form:
[What] is


What makes this sentence even stranger is the direct object is plural!  Ack!  Still, the singular verb form (=makes=) is needed because the subject of the clause (=what=) is singular.

Another way:  the entire clause, taken as as unit, as clauses always are, is singular and thus requires a singular verb in the sentence, no matter what.

[What] (singular) makes (singular).



As noted, this sentence's sounding strange to your ear is the clumsy construction.  The author would have been better advised to recast the sentence:

Choice points (plural) are (plural) what makes therapy an art (clause as predicate noun, itself acting as a direct object; note that =what makes... is= is still problematic).

Things [plural] that make therapy an art are [plural] choice points [plural].
A choice point [singular] makes [singular] therapy an art [=art= is singular; so is =therapy=, for that matter!].



The construction using a singular subject and verb, but a plural predicate noun is similar to a sentence such as =It is we.=  

=It= is singular, and so is =is=.  =We=, however, is plural!  

=Is= is a "state of being" verb and takes the nominative case in the predicate part of the sentence.

Part of the sentence is understood:

It is we [who are].

Understood is: =who are=.  =We= obviously requires a plural verb.


Similar constructions with nominative case needed in the predicate part of the sentence:

It's I. [Not =It's me.=]
It is I [who is speaking].


[Telephone conversation:]
May I speak to Andy, please?
This is he.  [Not =This is him.=  To avoid =this is he=, which some people find odd even though it is grammatically correct, the solution here is to say =This is Andy= or =Speaking=.]


Ain't grammer funn?

As strange as it may seem, sentence structure is like a puzzle to me.  In high school, I loved assignments in which we had to diagram sentences!  Of course, I also love to read dictionaries.  My profession, however, is music!  Go figure!


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Martha Beth Lewis


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