Usage and Grammar

Q. I hope that you can settle a minor dispute between a colleague and me. In a journal article that we are writing, we have a passage similar in syntax to the following: “I don’t like animals. An exception is cats, which are warm and furry.” The dispute is over the verb in the first clause in the second sentence, “An exception is cats . . .” My colleague believes that the verb in this clause should be plural, “are,” since the subject is the plural noun “cats.” It isn’t clear to me that the subject in the sentence is “cats.” Who is correct?

A. You are. In English the first noun gets to be the subject, so “exception” is the subject. And since it’s singular, “is” is the verb. You have noticed, however, that this is an awkward sentence that will probably make half of your readers wonder whether you got it right, so instead of using the technically correct phrasing, why not rewrite it altogether? Think “aside from cats,” “other than cats,” “Cats are an exception,” and so on.