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Google as a Source of Writing Advice:

In a recent exchange with an editor, I had to choose between "What matters is the [singular version of phrase X]" and "What matter are the [plural version of phrase X]." My first reaction to the latter option was, "Huh, sounds strange."

Now sometimes sounding strange is good: For instance, it's often good to use less familiar (but apt) imagery -- imagery which is "strange" in the sense of less familiar -- than familiar and therefore cliche imagery. The fresh imagery is more likely to capture the reader's attention, and to convey the message.

But you don't want to focus the reader's attention on a routine transition like "What matters is"; it's therefore best, I think, to phrase such routine items in routine ways -- to use common versions, not strange ones. (Other writers may legitimately disagree, but that was my judgment for my piece.) Yet was I right that "what matter are" is much less idiomatic than "what matters is"?

Google to the rescue: Google reported for me 400,000 results for "what matters is the," 35,000 for "what matters are the" (which I think is grammatical, but for reasons I don't want to get into here), and fewer than 1000 for "what matter are the." Matter settled.

Norman Pfyster:
It would depend on whether "matters" is a noun or a verb, i.e., What matters are you talking about? or "What matters is that you speak grammatically." In the second, the subject is the indefinite compound subject "what matters," which would be singular, in the same sense one would say, "Who comes matters little."
8.24.2006 6:29pm
AppSocRes (mail):
IMHO, in the noun phrase "what matters" the verb "matters" is in the singular form, so it would seem that the pronoun "what" in that phrase must be singular. Therefore, it would seem that the main verb in a sentence where the noun phrase "what matters" is the subject should take the singular form: Hence, by my reasoning, the correct form -- using old-fashioned grammatical reasoning is "What matters is ". Fortuitously, this seems also to be the preferred form in the vernacular.
8.24.2006 6:31pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Did you distinguish between "what matters is the [singular]" and "what matters is the [plural]" in your google search?

With about 400,000 results, google gives me plenty of cases where the "is" is used in conjunction with a singular version of the phrase, eg "what matters is the trajectory" and "what matters is the system"; you'd have to weed those out in order to make the comparison. Its unlikely google would return a lot of hits with "what matters are the [singular]".

Still, 400,00 is a lot more than 30,000.
8.24.2006 6:43pm
neurodoc:
EV: What was the "singular version of phrase X" and what was the "plural version of phrase X," so we might try to parse the the actual choice?

If the only concern is that one should "speak gramatically," then say or write, "What matters is that you speak grammatically." But if success might depend on more than just being able to "speak grammatically," then why not, "What matter are a variety of things, including that you make a good personal appearance, that you speak grammatically, that the audience is favorably disposed to your position, that you are not overshadowed by others on the program, and more."
8.24.2006 7:00pm
CEB:
On a similar note, I get 371,000 hits for "what it is is," a construction that I still can't determine the correctness of.
8.24.2006 7:05pm
John (mail):
What really matters is that you chose Google-sampled writers as your universe. Same sort of results with a more respectable group (no offense)?
8.24.2006 7:11pm
James Taranto (mail) (www):
I think what matters is whether the predicate is notionally singular or plural. "What matters is people" sounds right to me, because "people" is one idea, not a group of people considered individually. "What matters is people and profits" seems odd, since "people" and "profits" are two distinct ideas, each of which presumably matters independently of the other. "What matter are people and profits" is probably more correct, though it sounds better.
8.24.2006 7:19pm
BGates (mail) (www):
I think what matters is choosing the construction that doesn't get in the way of your message.

I don't think the opinions of thousands of people who show up on Google are what matters.
8.24.2006 7:19pm
James Taranto (mail) (www):
I meant to say "slightly strange" rather than "better" at the end of my last comment. But what does it matter?
8.24.2006 7:20pm
tefta2 (mail):
Send the question to the godfather of grammar, Jay Nordlinger at NRO, for a ruling.
8.24.2006 7:51pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
John: I'm not trying to figure out what "respectable" writers say. (Sometimes one might, but that's not what I'm doing here.) I'm trying to figure out what will seem familiar (as opposed to strange or jarring) to readers. For that, the google corpus is a good start.
8.24.2006 8:29pm
Jim C. (mail):
"What matter are" sounds strange because it's a hypercorrection and a mistake. "What matters" is a noun clause and the subject of the following verb "is." Within the noun clause "what" is the pronominal subject of the verb "matters." Whatever it is that matters, the last element in the sentence, is the predicate nominative of the whole sentence.

The grammar may be a little obscure, but the idiom "what matters" has hardened in the ear, so to speak. So you can't get to "what matter are" either by ear or by good grammar; you can only get there by mistaking the predicate nominative for the subject of "matters," which takes effort.
8.24.2006 9:28pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
I tried this with "free reign" (illiterate) and "free rein" (but who remembers horses any more?). The wrong answer won by better than two to one.
8.24.2006 9:32pm
Krista (mail):
Wow --I had a similar conversation with a colleague yesterday on this very topic! I had used, "regardless of whether" in a document and was told I should have used, "regardless whether," since the 'of' is extraneous. Although most VC readers seem especially apt with grammar and language, I am not (although I certainly appreciate it!) --so I decided to google it (or as google would prefer, "use the search engine google to facilitate a search"). "Regardless whether" has 885,000 hits, while "Regardless of whether" gets 45,100,000 hits! Is this an instance where although the majority of people are incorrect, it's better to use the incorrect usage because it sounds better? Also, I have been improperly corrected on more than one occasion for the proper usage of "I" versus "me" (e.g. "send the documents to Jane and me" and "Jane and I will review the documents") --but I haven't given up on that one. :)
8.24.2006 10:43pm
elChato (mail):
Is there anything Google can't do?

I have done similar things. Also, if you want to weed out the hoi polloi like John, you could try the same thing in Google Book Search; presumably the level of exposition is higher in published books.
8.24.2006 11:27pm
triticale (mail) (www):
I am reminded of the classic question as to whether it is correct to say "The population of Hell is souls in torment" or "The population of Hell are souls in torment", ask in such a manner as to get the very proper gentleman answering it to shout "Are souls, are souls!"
8.25.2006 2:08am
Lev:

"What matters is the [singular version of phrase X]" and "What matter are the [plural version of phrase X]."



"What matters is people" sounds right to me, because "people" is one idea, not a group of people considered individually. "What matters is people and profits" seems odd, since "people" and "profits" are two distinct ideas, each of which presumably matters independently of the other. "What matter are people and profits" is probably more correct,


I think one can't make a proper determination based on the information you two have presented, because the correctness of the constructions depends on the complete thought attempted to be conveyed.


What matters is people. (full stop as they say)



What matters is (sic) people addressing in their speeches.


The former is people as the group - one idea, the latter is people acting as individuals encompassed by a "group" noun - so it should be "are" instead of "is."


There is a lot of cattle.

There are a lot of cattle.


Each is correct is a specific instance. There is a lot of cattle (up for auction, lot number 15). There are a lot of cattle( in that field over there eating the grass).


"What matters is the [singular version of phrase X]"

"What matter are the [plural version of phrase X]


What is phrase x?


What matters is the violation of a civil right. (complete thought)

What matters are the violations of a civil right. (complete thought)

What matter are the violations of a civil right (incomplete thought)


Googling English grammar sites might be worthwhile for something such as this, unless one wants to collect and classify bad English.

There is many.
8.25.2006 3:58am
Federal Dog:
Both formulations are syntactically loose and should be edited into proper form: Concision and clarity matter.
8.25.2006 8:37am
Frank J. (mail) (www):
Without google, I don't know how I would have found out what the preferred spelling of the exclamation "criminy" is.
8.25.2006 9:16am
Paul Gowder (mail):
Google also makes for a great spell check, especially on web forms (like blog comments). Just punch the word into the search box, and 99% of the time it'll suggest the correct spelling.
8.25.2006 10:30am