Writing Workshops & Seminars               
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.
 


 Search
www.wilbers.com


Home       Topics & exercises       Seminars       Email courses       Books       Contact
 

 


Subject-Verb Agreement

“Subjects and verbs must agree

On the subject of verbs . . .


“Verbs has to agree with their subjects”

“Here’s a few rules – or here are a few rules – for singulars and plurals”

“How Well Do You Know the Rules of Subject-Verb Agreement?”


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Subjects and verbs must agree

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

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.

 

Top


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

On the subject of verbs . . .

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

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.

 

Top


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Verbs has to agree with their subjects

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

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.

 

Top


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Here’s a few rules – or here are a few rules –
for singulars and plurals

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

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.”

 

Intervening phrases

 

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:

 

Compound subjects

 

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.

 

Top


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

How well do you know the rules of subject-verb agreement?

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

How would you rate your command of English grammar? On a five-point scale, are you (1) very weak, (2) weak, (3) average, (3) strong, or (5) exceptional?

 

Do you have a number or level in mind? Good. Now let’s see if your self-assessment is accurate. We’ll use your knowledge of the rules of subject-verb agreement as a measure.

 

The good news about subject-verb agreement is that there is only one basic rule: Verbs must agree in number with their subjects. In other words, singular subjects take singular verbs, and plural subjects take plural verbs. Thus the term “agreement.”

 

The bad news is that there are hundreds of exceptions and special cases, and those may vary depending on whether you’re (or you are) using informal or formal English, American or British English, an English dialect or sub-dialect, etc. For example, none and data are considered singular in formal usage, but those words can be either singular or plural in general usage. I’ll use William Sabin’s The Gregg Reference Manual as my source for rules and examples.

 

Ready?

 

The five sentences below correspond to our five-point scale. I’ve arranged them by degree of difficulty, with sentence 1 illustrating a better-known rule and sentence 5 illustrating a less well-known rule. In other words, the choices go from more obvious to less obvious.

 

Here we go. Choose the correct verb in the following sentences:

 

1. Every computer and printer are/is marked for reduction.

 

2. Either the Credit Department or the Accounting Department has/have the file.

 

3. Neither the regional manager nor the salesclerks has/have the data you want.

 

4. This study, in addition to countless others with the same results, reveals/reveal some interesting trends.

 

5. She is one of those who favors/favor increasing the budget.

 

Here are the five rules governing your choices:

 

1. When two or more subjects are preceded by each or every, use a singular verb.

 

2. If the subject consists of two or more singular words that are connected by either . . . or, neither . . . nor, or not only . . . but also, use a singular verb.

 

3. If the subject consists of both singular and plural words that are connected by either . . . or, neither . . . nor, or not only . . . but also, the verb agrees with the nearer part of the subject.

 

4.  Insertions beginning with expressions such as along with, as well as, in addition to, etc., do not affect the verb.

 

5. The phrases one of those who and one of the things that are followed by plural verbs because the verbs refer to those or things (rather than to one).

 

In the odd-numbered sentences, the second choice is correct. In the even-numbered sentences, the first choice is correct. To determine your approximate level of competence, give yourself one point for each correct choice. Alternatively, rank yourself according to the highest sentence number in which you chose correctly. Finally, if you think “There’s many flaws to this assessment” is correct, give yourself a zero.

 

Top
 

 


Home       Topics & exercises       Seminars       Email courses       Books       Contact