Many of my posts include a quiz introduced by some form of the question “Which of the following sentences are problematic?” More than one subscriber has written to suggest that in this opening question, the plural verb are should instead be the singular verb is.
That is, these subscribers are convinced that the relative pronoun which is always singular.
In truth, the relative pronouns which, who, and that can be either singular or plural. To know whether a relative pronoun is singular or plural, we must look at its antecedent—the word or words to which it refers. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun is also plural and takes a plural verb. But if the antecedent is singular, the pronoun is also singular and takes a singular verb.
If I were to write “Which of the following sentences is problematic,” I would imply that only one sentence is problematic; I would be saying, essentially, “Which one of the following sentences is problematic?” That construction works if only one sentence is problematic, but not if more than one test sentence contains an error.
Consider the following sentences:
- Which of the steering committee members is going to draft the proposal?
- Which of the steering committee members are going to draft the proposal?
The first sentence implies that only one member of the steering committee will be drafting the proposal. The second sentence, on the other hand, suggests that two or more committee members will be drafting the proposal together.
Compare these two sentences that use the relative pronoun that:
- Emily picked all the flowers that were growing in the garden.
- Emily picked the one flower that was growing in the garden.
In the first sentence, the antecedent of that is flowers. Since the noun flowers is plural, the pronoun that is plural and takes a plural verb.
In the second sentence, the antecedent of that is the singular noun flower, so the verb must be the singular was.
(I know what some of you are thinking: Yes, we could eliminate the need for that in both sentences by reducing the relative clause to a participial [adjective] phrase: “Emily picked all the flowers growing in the garden” or “Emily picked the one flower growing in the garden.” But here we are focusing on making verbs agree with relative pronouns.)
Here are more examples using the relative pronouns which, who, and that:
- This objective correlates with the central performance goals in our corporate renewal plan, which are targeted toward the realignment of our marketing strategies in Europe and Asia.
- This objective correlates with the central performance goal in our corporate renewal plan, which is targeted toward the realignment of our marketing strategies in Europe and Asia
- The employee and appropriate management must sign the telecommuting agreement form, which outlines the expectations and responsibilities of both the telecommuter and the agency.
- Employees and the appropriate management personnel must sign telecommuting agreement forms, which outline the expectations and responsibilities of both the telecommuters and the agency.
- The five faculty members who are representing the college at the conference in Russia have been invited to a luncheon at the president’s home.
- The faculty member who is representing the college at the conference in Russia has been invited to speak at the president’s luncheon.
- A wood panel that has been treated will resist rotting.
- Wood panels that have been treated will resist rotting.
- Every member of the sales team who (is, are) planning to take a vacation this summer must submit a request in writing by May 10.
- Members of the sales team who (is, are) planning to take a vacation this summer must submit requests in writing by May 10.
- Which of the twelve verses of the holiday tune (was, were) Mark singing when the stage lights fell?
- Which of the children who tried out this morning (has been, have been) selected for the three open positions on the team?
- is (The antecedent of who is member, which is singular.)
- are (The antecedent of who is members, which is plural.)
- was (Since the lights would have fallen during one specific verse, which is singular; thus, the verb should be singular.)
- have been (Since three children were selected, the relative pronoun which is, in this sentence, plural.)
Copyright 2005 Get It Write. Revised 2022.