Where the dangers presented by those with a little learning are allayed        

All that is Left (is or are?)

So now we arrive at one of the most pathetic examples of what a little learning can achieve.

It's one of those that fit the category:

"I always got this wrong, but I'm willing to jump through any number of ridiculously convoluted hoops made of misconstrued grammar rules to make people think I never make mistakes!"

That, right there, is one of the most populated categories of those with a little learning.  Do try to steer clear of it – and don't be afraid to turn away from it, leaving it behind in your wake.

For an example of this particular gripe, take this headline:

"All that's left are ashes"

(The incorrect capitalisation is also theirs.)

OK, how on Earth did the main verb in that sentence ("are") become plural?

If you think it's correct, you've been led up the garden path.

But let's review some very, very basic rules, before we continue:

  1. The inflection of a verb must agree with its subject noun:
    • I am a nutter!
      "I" is singular, and the verb is inflected in the singular ("am").
    • I are not nuts!
      "I" is still singular, but the verb is inflected in the plural (should still be "am").

  2. Compound nouns are treated as single words, no matter how many words (particles) they contain:

      Given the sentence:
      "The man who designed the thing that we use to whack moles in Whack-a-Mole games has regrets":

    • The main verb in the sentence is "has" – right down at the end, there.

    • The subject of the main verb is:
      "The man who designed the thing that we use to whack moles in Whack-a-Mole games".

      Granted, that is a somewhat slightly extremely bloody complex multi-clause compound noun, but it still must be treated as a single word.

      Yup, the whole thing.
      Treat it as a single word.

      If you find that hard to get behind: the guy's name is Fred (probably), so try replacing the convoluted mess with "Fred".

      "Fred has regrets."  No problem.

      Note that both "The man ~~" and "Fred" are singular, not plural, which is why the main verb is "has", not "have".

    • "regrets" is the object of the main verb.  It is plural, but objects are not involved in the inflection of their verbs.

The Rule
If you can replace a bunch of words with a single word (like a pronoun or a person's name), treat the bunch of words as a single word.

A great, easy-to-remember example of compound nouns, that most people are already familiar with, is Jesus' order that Peter begin a stoning, and that the rest of His disciples should only join in after the first blood had been spilled:

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!"

  • Let: this makes the sentence imperative (an order, not a request).
  • he who is without sin: a clausal noun; the subject of the verb.

    "Clausal" can be taken as meaning "has its own verb".

  • cast: the main verb.
  • the first stone: a phrasal noun; the object of the verb.

    "Phrasal" pretty much means "more than one word, but no verbs".

So both "he who is without sin" and "the first stone" must be treated as if they were single words.

Interestingly, "Peter" even means "stone", and he's been popularised as the "without sin" guy, so it's eminently clear what the writers/editors of the Bible had in mind.

So, to get back to whether or not "all that's left are ashes" is correct...

... Um...

... Well, there's nothing more to say, really, is there?

The two very basic rules, described above – fundamental, core rules – say everything that needs to be said.

The subject of the verb is "All that is left", which is singular.

If it were plural, it would be "All that are left"


"All that is left are [whatever]" is incorrect.

Unless, of course, you want to believe that the above sentence should read:

"All that is left are [whatever]" are incorrect.

... In which case, there's no hope for you.  Step away from the keyboard, and stay stepped away.

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