Writing for Business and Pleasure
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers
Subjects and verbs must agree
On the subject of verbs . . .
If I said, "He don’t ever do anything
right," you would think me uneducated. You know verbs must agree with
their subjects. A singular subject takes a singular verb; a plural subject
takes a plural verb.
But what if I said, "None of you are stupid," "Either our advertising or our distribution points is the problem," or "Your reader, as well as your boss, want you to get it right"? These errors may not be as obvious to you.
Here are some guidelines to keep your verbs and subjects from squabbling:1. Compound subjects take plural verbs. If your subject has two elements joined by the conjunction and, use a plural verb, as in "The CEO and her assistant are present."
An exception is when the compound elements are thought of as a singular entity, as in "Profit and loss is important to every business."
2. With compound subjects joined by or, verbs agree with the closer element. If one of the two parts of the subject is plural and the other is singular, the verb agrees with the one that is closer, as in "Either our advertising or our distribution points are the problem," and "Either our distribution points or our advertising is the problem."
3. Asides don’t make a subject plural. An aside has no bearing on the subject, so it should be "The delay, as well as the resulting costs, is troubling" (not "are troubling"), and "Your effort, in addition to your many hours of overtime, is commendable" (not "are commendable").
4. Verbs agree with their subjects regardless of intervening phrases. In the sentence "The network of computer systems is operating well," network is the subject, not systems, so the verb should be is, not are. To avoid this common error, drop the intervening phrase so that the subject-verb relationship is clear ("The network . . . is").
5. None takes a singular verb. The preferred usage is "None of you is," although "None of you are" is becoming more common.
6. Collective nouns take both singular and plural verbs. Collective nouns are words that comprise more than one member, such as faculty and staff. They take singular verbs if the members are acting as a unit, as in "The faculty is unhappy," and plural verbs if the members are acting separately, as in "The faculty are meeting with other members of their disciplines to discuss the issue."
An exception is when the collective noun is a plural name, as in "The Twins are a good team," not "The Twins is a good team."
7. Verbs agree with their subjects regardless of what follows. When the subject is linked by is or are to a noun or pronoun and the two don’t agree – that is, one is singular and the other is plural – the verb agrees with the subject. For example, "The problem is spiraling costs," not "The problem are spiraling costs," and "The issues relate to centralization," not "The issues relates to centralization."
Your reader, as well as your boss, wants you to get it right.
First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune on July 18, 2005
by Stephen Wilbers
In an earlier column I provided guidelines
for making sure your verbs agree with their subjects.
Now you know it should be "Either our advertising or our distribution points are [not is] the problem" because the verb agrees with the closer element when the two parts of a compound subject are joined by the conjunction or.
You also know it should be "Your reader, as well as your boss, wants [not want] you to get it right" because an aside introduced by a phrase such as in addition to or as well as does not change a singular subject into a plural subject.
But as sometimes happens in a short column, I made things seem simpler than they really are. Here are some exceptions, as identified by William Sabin in The Gregg Reference Manual:
1. When a sentence has both a positive and a negative subject, the verb agrees with the positive subject, as in "Low prices and not quality determine many purchases" and "Peace of mind not riches is what makes a person happy."
2. A phrase or clause serving as the subject takes a singular verb, as in "Keeping a style manual nearby is a good idea" and "Reading my column gives you whiter teeth."
3. The phrases one of and one of the take a singular verb, as in "One of you is telling the truth" and "One of the editors wants a rewrite."
4. The phrases one of those who and one of the things that take plural verbs, as in "The comma splice is one of those errors that always slip past me" and "One of the things that drive me nuts is subject-verb agreement."
5. When the words the only precede these one of phrases, however, they take a singular verb, as in "Meg is the only one who knows how to paddle a canoe," and "Ted is not the only one of my nephews who has a vivid imagination."
6. The phrase the number of takes a singular verb; the phrase a number of takes a plural verb, as in "The number of errors in this report is alarming" and "A number of our clients have complained."
7. The indefinite pronouns all, none, any, some, more and most may be singular or plural depending on what that they refer to, as in "All the work is finished" (referring to work) and "Does any one of you know who did this?" (referring to you).
8. Subjects expressing periods of time, amounts of money, or quantities may take either singular or plural verbs depending on whether represent a total amount or a number of individual units. For example, "Four weeks is not enough vacation time" and "Two days have passed since I asked for your response."
9. Clauses beginning with what may be singular or plural according to what they refer to, as in "What we need is more time" and "What we need are two more minutes."
Well, I hope reading about these tricky cases hasn’t confused you. When in doubt, look it up.
First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune on March 26, 2007
by Stephen Wilbers
If I said, "He don’t ever do nothing
right," you would give me an odd look. But if I said, "The network of
computers are linked by wireless connection," you might give me a pass.
The question is subject-verb agreement. Singular subjects take singular verbs, and plural subjects take plural verbs.
But sometimes we blow it.
Perhaps the most common problem is when the verb does not follow the subject immediately, and we connect the verb to the nearest word rather than to its true subject. In the example above, "The network of computers are linked by wireless connection," the subject is network, not computers, so the verb should be is, not are.
Errors in subject-verb agreement are especially common in speaking, when we tend to lose track of our subjects. It’s an understandable error. Sentence structures are sometimes complex. In writing, however, we get a second chance to get it right.
So take out your pencil and mark the correct verbs:
1. Her experience with credit displays and investments makes/make her a good candidate.
2. A lack of commitment, along with numerous gaps in employment, disqualifies/disqualify him.
3. One of my problems with proofreading is/are I am impatient.
4. She is one of those people who gets/get along with everyone.
5. Neither dedication nor long hours explains/explain her success.
6. A number of errors was/were identified.
7. The number of errors was/were disturbing.
8. Making all these choices is/are hard work.
9. The secret is/are the diced onions.
10. There is/are no strings attached.
The correct answers are (1) makes, (2) disqualifies, (3) is, (4) get, (5) explain, (6) were, (7) was, (8) is, (9) is, and (10) are.
Here are some rules and tips that will help you maintain subject-verb agreement:
1. When connecting the verb to its subject, disregard intervening phrases.
2. An aside introduced by an expression such as along with and in addition to does not alter the subject-verb relationship.
3. The phrase one of takes a singular verb.
4. The phrases one of those people who and one of those things that, however, take plural verbs because the verbs refer not to one but to people and things.
5. With a compound subject joined by either . . . or and neither . . . nor, the verb agrees with the part of the subject that is nearer.
6. The phrase a number of takes a plural verb.
7. The phrase the number of takes a singular verb.
8. A phrase or clause serving as the subject generally takes a singular verb.
9. When a subject is connected to what follows (its complement) by a linking verb such as is and are, the verb agrees with the subject, as in "Our concern is declining profits," not with what follows, as in "Our concern are declining profits."
10. In a sentence beginning with the phrase there is and there are, however, the verb agrees with the subject that follows.
If you didn’t get all 10 correct, have another go at it.
First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune on June 10, 2014
by Stephen Wilbers
Singular is singular, and plural is plural, and never the twain shall meet, as Rudyard Kipling would no doubt agree. Verbs have to agree with their subjects, not verbs has to agree with their subjects.
But as you apply this simple singular-singular/plural-plural rule, don’t be fooled by certain structures:
Sentences beginning with here and there
These words, called “expletives,” move the subject so that it comes after, rather than before, the verb. Compare “Here are the boxes” with “The boxes are here,” and “There are three trends that concern me” with “Three trends concern me.” With sentences introduced by expletives, don’t fall into the increasingly common, and ear-grating, habit of using singular verbs regardless of what follows. In other words, it’s “Here are the boxes,” not “Here’s the boxes.” Likewise, it’s “There are three things,” not “There’s three things.”
They don’t change a thing. It’s “The severity of these problems is troubling,” not “The severity of these problems are troubling.” Don’t let the intervening phrase fool your ear. When in doubt, strike it out. You wouldn’t say, “The severity are”; you’d say, “The severity is,” so it’s “The severity of these problems is.”
Asides introduced by phrases such as in addition to and as well as
Again, they don’t change a thing. It’s “This subject, as well as those subjects, is singular,” not “This subject, as well as those subjects, are singular.” Again, when in doubt, strike it out. Singular subjects take singular verbs.
But not always. Watch for the following exceptions:
Generally, when you join two things with the conjunction and, the resulting compound takes a plural verb, as in “The gerbil and the rat are in love.” But sometimes the compound elements are thought of as a single entity, as in “Profit and loss is important to every business.” Also, when you create a compound subject with the conjunction or, the verb agrees in number with the closer element. If the closer element is singular, the verb is singular (even if the farther element is plural), as in “Either these two hotdogs or that lake trout is going to be dinner.” If the closer element is plural, the verb is plural (even if the farther element is singular), as in “Either that lake trout or these two hotdogs are going to be dinner.”
Subjects and complements that differ in number
“Complements” are words connected to subjects by linking verbs, as in “That fish is a monster,” where monster is the complement of the subject fish. When subjects and complements are mismatched in number (that is, one is singular and the other is plural), the verb agrees with the subject rather than with the complement, as in “The problem is too many fish,” not “The problem are too many fish,” and “Too many fish are the problem,” not “Too many fish is the problem.”
To avoid errors in subject-verb agreement, keep your eye on the prize: the subject.