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Vocabulary: concord: my favourite fruit is/ are....

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An explanation and advice on teaching subject - verb agreement.

I asked some native English speakers the following questions, but I got different answers from them. It does confuse me what the correct answer it is. Would you say, "My favourite fruit is apples." or "My favourite fruit is apple." or "My favourite fruit are apples." ? And, when I change "apple" to "watermelon" or "pineapple", it seems that we can only say, "My favourite fruit is watermelon." If we say, "My favourite fruit is watermelons." that would be not correct. Is that right? Another similar question is, people would say, "My favourite food is noodles.", not "My favourite food is noodle." Then, how about other foods? Would you say, "My favourite food is hamburgers." ?
Is there a rule to apply to the sentences I mentioned above? Could you help with my questions?

Roy Guo

Roy, your fascinating question concerns what is called, technically, concord, or, more generally, agreement. That is, the agreement of subject and verb. So, to take your example (but avoiding fruit for the moment): My favourite animal is the elephant. Here we have concord between the (singular, countable) subject and the verb. We also have agreement between the singular subject and the complement (the elephant). We could equally well say: My favourite animals are elephants. Again concord rules.

In the occasional case where the subject is singular and the complement is plural, the verb agrees with the subject, not the complement. So: My favourite meal is baked beans. Not *My favourite meal are baked beans. (The asterisk is the device traditionally used to show a grammatically unacceptable example). This, by the way, explains My favourite food is noodles, noodles being almost always thought of in the plural.

However, there is another issue involved, and that is the way we use nouns to talk generically, that is, about classes of things. When we say My favourite animals are elephants, we are talking about elephants as a class, rather than any specific and identifiable elephants (in which case we would say My favourite animals are the elephants – e.g. the ones in the zoo). With countable nouns there are three options when talking generically:

An elephant is a mammal.
The elephant is a mammal.
Elephants are mammals.

With uncountable nouns, there is only one option – the “zero article”:

Carbon is an element.

So far so good. But your example with fruit somewhat complicates things, since fruit has two plural forms: the more common fruit, as in The tree is pretty but its fruit are poisonous. And fruits, as in Mangoes and pineapples are tropical fruits. (The fact that fruit can also be uncountable, as in Fruit is good for you, need not concern us here, since in the context of my favourite fruit we are talking about one fruit among many, and hence making it countable).

Taking all this into account, we now need to explain why the following seem acceptable (and, indeed, are acceptable when you try them out on native speakers):

1. My favourite fruit are apples
2. My favourite fruit is apples.

Less likely, but grammatical, are:

3. My favourite fruit is the apple.
4. My favourite fruits are apples.

Example 1 is easily explained, since fruit here is the plural form, and hence the example follows the pattern: My favourite animals are elephants.

Example 2 I can only explain as being singular fruit (analogous to My favourite animal…) but that the plural apples is the generic form – a slightly less pompous-sounding way of saying 3. My favourite fruit is the apple. Nevertheless, when questioned about example 2, native speakers feel a bit uncomfortable, recognising it as being somehow deviant, but the best of a bad job. Example 4 might be an attempt to be hypercorrect, with regard to concord, but it is only really likely in cases like My favourite fruits are apples and pears.

If example 2 is acceptable (and I think it is), it raises the question: why can’t we say My favourite animal is elephants? The reason is, I think, that it is not unusual to think of apples, generically, in quantities of more than one, but not elephants. In fact, the smaller you get, the more likely it is you would use a plural:

3) My favourite fruit is cherries.

Compare: My favourite fruit is the cherry

4) My favourite vegetable is peas.

Compare: My favourite vegetable is the pea. My favourite vegetables are peas

This also accounts for your watermelon and pineapplecases, I think. My favourite fruit is watermelons conjures up images of eating several at one sitting. The uncountable, zero article, generic watermelon gets round the concord problem, and conjures up an acceptable image of tucking into a watermelon without necessarily eating it all. But it doesn’t work for apple: *My favourite fruit is apple.Uncountable apple and countable apple are very different items, in the way that uncountable watermelonand countable watermelon are not.

So, as a general rule, I’d say that, when talking generically, the smaller the item, the more likely it is we will pluralise it. (I like cherries). For bigger items, use an uncountable form, if possible. (I like watermelon). If not, let concord rule. (My favourite animals are woolly mammoths).


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Readers' comments (5)

  • Hi Alan,

    This is often the subject of debate! 'They' is often used in English when the gender of the subject is unknown - in your example, we do not know whether the student is male or female so we refer to them as 'they'. In the past, people often used to use 'he' or 'him' when the subject of indeterminate gender, but this is now felt to be a bit outdated. Some people object to the use of 'they' as they feel it is ungrammatical, however, its use is very common and is widely accepted and understood.

    I hope this answer helps. If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • I saw this on your website in an article about listening :

    Secondly, if a student can’t answer a particular question, it doesn't necessarily mean they are bad at listening or even that they didn’t understand most of the recording, simply that they couldn’t answer that question. In fact, there may be other reasons they couldn’t answer the question. For example, they didn’t understand the wording of the question, they didn’t hear the part where the answer was, and so on

    a student................. they are !

    What's going on ? Suddenly singular becomes plural ! ?

    Please explain


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  • H.P. When you say in your comment:
    "Apples Trees" and
    "grapes vines"
    I identify the word apple as an adjective qualifying trees; and grape as adjective qualifying vines. As far as I know, in English adjectives have no plural; therefore your example doesn't hold grammatically.

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  • Here are the correct forms, including your favorite animal/animals:

    My favorite [kind of] fruit is the grape.
    My favorite fruits are the grape, apple, cherry, and strawberry.
    My favorite animal is the elephant.
    My favorite animals are the elephant, ostrich, pig, and, last but not least, the dog. (not the elephants/ostriches/pigs/dogs)

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  • It has nothing to do with size. It has everything to do with definition. Webster's definition of Apple is: "an edible fruit." The same goes for grape, watermelon, etc. Apple is a fruit.

    The problem is the missing word "kind," which is implied by the question. What is your favorite kind of fruit?

    This is the reason we describe a group of trees as "Apple trees" not Apples Trees, and vines as "grape vines" not grapes vines. it's also why John Lennon was correct when he said "Strawberry fields forever," not Strawberries fields forever.

    Apple is a kind of fruit just as grape is a kind of fruit. The question is not about quantity but about the kind or type of fruit. It's "My favorite [kind of] fruit is apple." My favorite [kind of] fruit is grape. This is the correct form. It has nothing to do with size of the item. How silly.

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