Subjects and verbs must agree
June 27, 2005
Here’s a few
rules – or here are a few rules – for singulars and plurals
June 10, 2014
First published June 27, 2005
Subjects and verbs must agree
By Stephen Wilbers
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
Here are some guidelines to keep your
verbs and subjects from squabbling:
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."
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
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 . . .
takes a singular verb.
The preferred usage is "None of you is," although "None of you are" is
becoming more common.
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
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 July 28, 2005
On the subject of verbs . . .
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
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:
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."
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
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
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
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
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).
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."
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 March 26, 2007
Verbs has to agree with their subjects
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
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,
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
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
7. The number of errors was/were
8. Making all these choices is/are
9. The secret is/are the diced
10. There is/are no strings
The correct answers are (1) makes,
(2) disqualifies, (3) is, (4) get, (5) explain,
(6) were, (7) was, (8) is, (9) is, and
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
3. The phrase one of takes a
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
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
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
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 June 10 2004
Here’s a few rules – or here are a few rules –
for singulars and plurals
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
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