As you are probably aware, our contemporary English content is now available through Lexico.com (https://www.lexico.com/en), and our old English dictionary site no longer exists.

As a result of this, this forum is now closed.

The English dictionary community team would like the opportunity to say a huge thanks to all of you who participated by posting questions and helping other community members.
We hope this forum was useful, and that you enjoyed being a part of it.

If you would like to get in touch with any OED-related queries, please write to
[email protected]

And if you would like to contribute suggestions to the OED, please do so by visiting: https://public.oed.com/contribute-to-the-oed/

Thank you very much indeed, and good bye!
The community team

Why the following sentence is grammatically correct please?

I came across the following sentence in The War of the World by Niall Ferguson:
Finally, all that remains are smouldering ruins and piles of desiccated corpses.

The word "remains" with a "s" suggests to me the "all" is a singular noun. If this assumption is correct, why then "are"...... and not "is".... please?

Answers

  • @LuckyStar8, this a really difficult question. The sentence doesn't seem ungrammatical.
    If we change it to obey the usual rules of sentence grammar, the result is
    Finally, all that remains is smouldering ruins and piles of desiccated corpses.
    This isn't ungrammatical, but it sounds rather strange to me.

    I think three sorts of process are involved.

    1. ANALYSING or NOT ANALYSING
      All that remains is a SET PHRASE.
      Yes, it has a normal STRUCTURE — a NOUN followed by a RELATIVE CLAUSE.
      But when we hear it, we don't analyse it in our minds.
      We understand it as a simple unit which often introduces a topic .

    2. TOPIC and COMMENT
      That word TOPIC is often used to mean 'what I want to talk about in this sentence'.
      Often the words showing the topic appear as the SUBJECT of the sentence or clause.

    It's possible to write
    TOPIC.........................................................................COMMENT
    Smouldering ruins and piles of desiccated corpses will be all that remains.

    But it's also possible to write
    COMMENT.........................TOPIC
    All that remains will be smouldering ruins and piles of desiccated corpses.

    Why do we choose one rather than the other?

    • Often we put the TOPIC expression at the end because it's heavy (long and with several stressed words). Perhaps Niall Ferguson felt that smouldering ruins and piles of desiccated corpses was to heavy to sound right as the SUBJECT.

    • Often we want to link the ideas in an expression to ideas in a precious sentence or in a sentence that will follow. Perhaps Ferguson wanted to link the idea of remaining with something in the previous sentence. Perhaps he wanted this sentence to introduce something in the next sentence.

    1. THE MEANING OF all
      All is usually a positive word, but there is a use where it's negative — meaning 'nothing else'.

    Still avoiding the PRESENT, we could write
    Smouldering ruins and piles of desiccated corpses will remain and nothing else

    1. THE MEANING OF is/are
      Let's use the term COMPLEMENT to mean the expression following the verb be.
      The grammar is different for two sorts of sentences

    A. NON-REVERSIBLE
    The SUBJECT expresses a MEMBER and the COMPLEMENT expresses a CLASS. For example,

    SUBJECT...BE....COMPLEMENT
    MEMBER...BE....CLASS
    _John.......is.....a man. _

    We can't reverse the order of the expressions

    SUBJECT...BE....COMPLEMENT
    CLASS.......BE....MEMBER
    _A man........is.....John. _

    B. REVERSIBLE
    Both the SUBJECT and the COMPLEMENT refer to the same thing, so the order of the expressions can be reversed.

    • Two references. For example

    SUBJECT.......BE.....COMPLEMENT
    John..................is.....the leader.
    The leader.........is.....John.

    • One is a reference an the other is an EXPLANATION

    SUBJECT....................................................BE...COMPLEMENT
    REFERENCE....................................................BE...EXPLANATION
    A leader.............................................................is.... someone that other people agree to follow.
    EXPLANATION................................................BE....REFERENCE
    Someone that other people agree to follow....is.... a leader

    • One expresses the WHOLE and the other expresses COMPONENT PARTS. For example

    SUBJECT.............................BE......COMPLEMENT
    WHOLE..................................BE......COMPONENT PARTS
    A three-piece suite ...............is ......a sofa and two armchairs.
    COMPONENT PARTS.............BE......WHOLE
    A sofa and two armchairs ......is ....a three-piece suite.

    Let's try to put these four together:

    The expression all that remains is
    1. a SET PHRASE
    2. a COMMENT
    3. NEGATIVE in the sense that it EXCLUDES anything else
    4. a REVERSIBLE expression of the WHOLE

    The expression smouldering ruins and piles of desiccated corpses is
    1. not a SET PHRASE
    2. a TOPIC
    3. NEGATIVE in tone but NOT EXCLUDING anything
    4. a REVERSIBLE expression of two COMPONENT PARTS

    The usual way to put the two together is to start with the TOPIC as the SUBJECT:
    Smouldering ruins and piles of desiccated corpses are all that remains.

    But Niall Ferguson decided to REVERSE the SUBJECT and COMPLEMENT expressions.
    Usually, there is no problem with BE. The Beatles sang:
    All you need is love.
    Love is all you need.

    But here one expression is SINGULAR and the other is PLURAL.
    Why doesn't Ferguson change are to is when he REVERSES the order?
    I suggest

    1. Because the SUBJECT is a SET PHRASE, he doesn't pays as much attention as usual to the grammar of it.
    2. BECAUSE the COMPLEMENT is the TOPIC, he feels that it's more important and should have more effect on the grammar.
    3. Because the SUBJECT is a negative expression meaning 'and nothing else', it seems less important and should have less effect on the grammar.
    4. The COMPLEMENT vividly describes the two COMPONENT PARTS. We're not very interested in the WHOLE.

    Reasons 2-4 would not usually be strong enough to lead us to are rather than is. But reason 1 — the fact that it's a SET PHRASE — make those reasons stronger.

    NOTE 1
    There are other types of REVERSED sentences with are before a COMPLEMENT which is PLURAL

    Tom, Dick and Harry are invited.
    Invited are Tom, Dick and Harry.

    Postage and packing charges are included.
    Included are postage and packing charges.

    A clock and a vase of flowers are on the shelf.
    On the shelf are a clock and a vase of flowers.

    NOTE 2
    In the type of sentence where the SUBJECT is a RELATIVE CLAUSE alone, we sometimes write is if it was like a SINGULAR NOUN PHRASE, and so we choose is:
    What we saw was three apples and four oranges.

    But quite often we choose are when the COMPLEMENT is PLURAL:
    What we saw was three apples and four oranges.

  • DavidCorsbie thank you very for devoting so much time in answering my question. I am sorry I didn't mean to ask a difficult question. When I put forward the question, I just thought my understanding was misplaced some where. I was expecting a simple correction in my understanding. However, your effort is greatly appreciated. Now, I just have to read through your explanation and try to absorb it.

Sign In or Register to comment.