Wilbers: On misplaced modifiers and that other kind of expletives

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • May 27, 2012 - 7:18 PM

Clive writes: "I just received a local e-mail newsletter regarding a recent tragic yacht race accident. Thank goodness they finally found the captain's body, but now I'm a bit worried about the poor fishermen."

With good reason. As reported in the newsletter, a missing Aegean skipper "was found by two fishermen floating in the ocean near the Coronado Islands on Sunday afternoon."

In addition to the threat of dehydration, hypothermia and shark attacks, the "two fishermen floating in the ocean," like many writers, were adrift in a sea of misplaced modifiers.

To avoid that common error, make sure your modifying phrases are positioned so that they refer unambiguously to the persons or things modified. If they don't, you may find that you -- rather than the herring -- are pickled in this sentence: "When pickled, I think herring tastes like caviar." Yuck.

While we're on the topic of mishaps, grammatical and otherwise, Betty writes proudly of her grandson's success: "Pat is a graduate of Cal Poly SLO and has just been employed as an editor for Truckin' Magazine. He is so happy, for he has long been car crazy. His lab is named Crash, and he considered getting another he would name Burn."

Geri wants to know if the following sentence takes a singular or plural verb: "What's needed is/are qualified staff, a surgical option for women who need it, some basic medications and some simple equipment."

Expletives such as what and there function as sentence-inverting words that move the true subject of the sentence to a position after the verb, as in "What we need are three rules," as opposed to "Three rules are what we need."

Clauses beginning with what take singular or plural verbs depending on whether the subjects they refer to are single or plural. In my examples (and in Geri's sentence), they are plural.

But not so fast.

Gary, a professional writer, editor and translator whose clients include publishing houses such as the Korea edition of Newsweek, offers a correction:

"I note that in one of your columns you say, 'Clauses beginning with what may be singular or plural according to what they refer to, as in 'What we need is more time' and 'What we need are two more minutes.'

"I find the second example jarring. As a block of time ... two more minutes is singular. Make it the subject of a sentence and you'll see what I mean: 'Two more minutes is all we need.'"

Gary is right. As a measurement of time, two minutes, although a plural quantity, is a singular concept.

As William Sabin points out in The Gregg Reference Manual, "Clauses beginning with what may be singular or plural according to the meaning."

Singular meanings include measurements not only of time but also of money. For example, not "Four more dollars are all we need," but "Four more dollars is all we need."

Because measurements tend to be singular in concept, the verb in my sentence should have been singular: "What we need is two more minutes."

I stand corrected.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is

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