Writers Talk About Writing
Grammar Bite: Making Subjects and Verbs Agree
Subject-verb agreement sounds easy, doesn't it? A singular subject takes singular verb:
- Tom rides his bike to work every day.
A plural subject takes a plural verb:
- The boys are climbing the walls like caged animals.
Yet The Copyeditor's Handbook lists no fewer than 25 cases that aren't so clear-cut, and Garner's Modern American Usage devotes nearly 5 columns to the topic. Even the comparatively diminutive Grammar Smart devotes five pages (including quizzes) to the topic. What makes subject-verb agreement so hard?
One thing that trips up writers is a long, complicated subject. The writer gets lost in it and forgets which noun is actually the head of the subject phrase and instead makes the verb agree with the nearest noun:
- The arrival of new fall fashions have excited all the back-to-school shoppers.
(should be has to agree with arrival)
Another trap for writers is the trend away from strict grammatical agreement toward notional agreement, that is the verb agrees with the notion the subject is trying to get across, whether it's singular or plural:
- Twenty-five rules is a lot to digest.
- Twenty-five rules are listed on the notice.
And then there's the fact that English just refuses to fit neatly into a box and stay there. If English can take a left turn when you thought it would go straight, it does.
Here, then, is a brief rundown of 10 nuances of subject-verb agreement.
A subject made up of nouns joined by and takes a plural subject, unless that subject's intended sense is singular.
- She and I run every day.
- Peanut butter and jelly is my favorite sandwich.
When a subject is made up of nouns joined by or, the verb agrees with the last noun.
- She or I run every day.
- Potatoes, pasta, or rice pairs well with grilled chicken.
Collective nouns (team, couple, staff, etc.) take either a singular or plural verb, depending on whether the emphasis is on the individual units or on the group as whole.
- The football team is practicing night and day for the Super Bowl.
- Boston's school committee disagree about what to cut from the school budget.
Connectives, phrases such as combined with, coupled with, accompanied by, added to, along with, together with, and as well as, do not change the number of the subject. These phrases are usually set off with commas.
- Oil, as well as gas, is a popular heating choice.
- Peanut butter combined with bread and jelly is a tasty snack.
(Here, the peanut butter, bread, and jelly are one unit, a sandwich, so no commas are needed and we keep the singular verb.)
Collecting noun phrases (a bunch of, a group of, a set of, etc.) take either a singular or plural verb, depending on whether the emphasis is on the individual units or on the group as whole:
- A group of boys were digging in my flower beds!
- A set of 12 dishes is all you need for the dinner party.
Each takes a singular verb.
- Each boy is excited about the meet; each is well prepared.
None takes a singular verb if what it refers to is singular and a plural verb if its referent is plural.
- None of the peas are left on Sean's plate.
- None of the book is reproducible without permission.
With fractions, the verb agrees with the whole.
- One-fourth of the books are gone.
- One-fourth of the sand is white.
With money, if the amount is specific, use a singular verb; if the amount is vague, use a plural verb.
- Within a year, $5 million was spent on building a new factory, and millions more were spent on training future factory workers.
The phrase more than one takes a singular verb (yes, I know that doesn't sound logical; try to remember that one is followed by something, whether explicitly or implicitly).
- More than one box is sitting in the hallway.
- More than one is sitting in the hallway.
Have a specific question on subject-verb agreement? Let me know in the comments below!