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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!


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday December 15th 2010, 7:31 AM
Comment by: Kenneth K.
Great job at clarifying some very tricky grammar situations.
Wednesday December 15th 2010, 7:45 AM
Comment by: Eric B. (Pittsford, NY)
Some years ago, Wendy's Restaurants came out with a Good Grades program to reward academic achievement with free food and they had a variety of signs and other printed materials headed "Good Grades is it's own reward."
Wednesday December 15th 2010, 8:43 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Lovely! I have pondered these issues many times and come up with the right answer in most.
Wednesday December 15th 2010, 3:05 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
My gym displays a framed sign on the front desk that reads "Towel Service Are for Members Only." I suspect someone confused the "s" sound at the end of "service" with the plural "s."
Wednesday December 15th 2010, 6:03 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Sometimes, I find 'none' just a bit more confusing. You have to interpret the situation.

None of the boys is leaving.
None of the boys are leaving.

Can't both sentences be correct? If the first 'none' means 'not one' then 'is' is correct, I think, but it might need an expanded sentence to clarify that.

However...

According to the rule given in the article, the second is always correct.
Wednesday December 15th 2010, 6:55 PM
Comment by: Salah Q. (makkah Saudi Arabia)
THANK YOU . IT IS WHAT I REALY NEED .
Wednesday December 15th 2010, 7:09 PM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
Good points, very helpful.
Wednesday December 15th 2010, 11:32 PM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
I agree with what several others have said already: very helpful. Thanks.

Also, what do you make of this sentence, Erin?
"But human ingenuity and intelligence, plus what may amount to an instinct for symbolism, comes to the rescue" (Dwight Bolinger, Language - The Loaded Weapon [1980], p. 56).

It combines two of the rules you've listed (numbers 1 and 4), and it seems to flout rule number 1 (can "ingenuity and intelligence" really be intended as a singular?).
Thursday December 16th 2010, 7:26 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
Stupid question, but in the following example:

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 (sense is singular: run is the singular verb)

If you break the subject up:

I run every day (sense is singular: run is the singular verb)

She runs every day (sense is singular: runs is the ????)

One thing great about this forum: you can sound stupid; but not look stupid.
Thursday December 16th 2010, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'd need more time than I have to test it now, but it could be that the verb is agreeing with the subject closest to it, Kip.
Thursday December 16th 2010, 7:39 PM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
Jane:

But isn't both she and I singular. So in the sentence "I run every day," and "she runs every day"; it seems the verb form is used differently for both singulars.
Thursday December 16th 2010, 9:01 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
The 'she' requires the 3rd person singular form, Kip. That requires that 's' ending.

I haven't tested that, but it isn't a case of changing from singular to plural. They are both singular, just different person. And I suspect it's a case of agreement with the subject closest to the verb.

Not tested, though! LOL

I love trying to figure out the ins and outs of language, the tiny little picky points, like how they form plurals (some have a form for two, and then many), the Romance languages and their case with nouns and a preceding word... la femme, etc...

The why of what they do is is fascinating.
Friday December 17th 2010, 5:08 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Jane B., the problem with "none" is that it can be either singular or plural, depending on what it represents. So "None of the boys are leaving" is correct because "none" refers to "boys." But in "None of the Christmas money is left," you want a singular verb because "none" is referring to "money," which is singular.

Anonymous, the subject of your sentence is "human ingenuity and intelligence," which would take the plural "come" as a verb. The phrase "plus what may amount to an instinct for symbolism" is surrounded by commas, making it parenthetical. That is, it isn't a necessary part of the sentence and isn't considered part of the subject. If we removed the commas, the whole subject becomes "human ingenuity and intelligence plus what may amount to an instinct for symbolism" and would still take a plural verb. The result is long and clunky, however. I'd probably rewrite it as "But human ingenuity, intelligence, and what may amount to an instinct for symbolism come..."

Kip, In "She and I run every day," the sense is plural. The two of us are both running, but we don't have to be running together. Maybe she runs in the morning before work, and I run in the evenings after work. "Run" is also the first person plural form of "to run." It breaks out this way:

I run.
You run.
She runs. He runs. It runs.
We run.
You run.
They run.

Make sense?
Friday December 17th 2010, 10:31 PM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
Great article, but I am more confused than ever.
Friday December 17th 2010, 10:59 PM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
Paul:

Ditto!

But I love the dialogue and interaction.
Tuesday December 28th 2010, 11:58 PM
Comment by: Imtiaz A.
Most of it is basic English; however, whether to use "none" as singular or pleural is still confusing to me. "None of the boys is leaving" sounds more correct grammatically.

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