TIPS AND TRICKS
Subject-verb agreement is obviously a very basic aspect of grammar: the verb must agree with the subject in both person and number. However, it can get pretty tricky when certain elements are thrown in the mix. Here are some things to watch out for.
Problems often arise when something plural comes between a singular subject and its verb (or vice versa). This can occur in a number of different situations, for instance in sentences with subjects containing prepositional phrases, subjects containing relative clauses and subjects with appositives. For example,
- The deeply rooted desires of doom in the locked box tries to escape every now and then.
- Rewrite: The deeply rooted desires of doom in the locked box try to escape every now and then.
- The gangrene-ridden gremlin that will speak at our upcoming conferences support the anti-troll legislation.
- Rewrite: The gangrene-ridden gremlin that will speak at our upcoming conferences supports the anti-troll legislation.
- Each of the dragons have pretty painted nails.
- Rewrite: Each of the dragons has pretty painted nails.
- The whole process—the chocolate shower, the sword fight, the never-ending flow of singsongs and all the talking crocodile monkeys—weren’t of any interest to me.
- Rewrite: The whole process—the chocolate shower, the sword fight, the never-ending flow of singsongs and all the talking crocodile monkeys—wasn’t of any interest to me.
INDEFINITE PRONOUNS AS SUBJECTS
Indefinite pronouns as subjects can cause more problems than just subject-verb separation. Most indefinite pronouns are singular (e.g. another, anyone, anything, each, everybody, everything, much, no one, nothing, somebody, something), but some (i.e. all, any, more, most, none, some) can be either singular or plural depending on the context. They can refer to either a single quantity (mass/uncountable noun) or a number of individual units in a group (countable noun). Use your judgement to determine whether the indefinite pronoun refers to a countable or uncountable noun and decide whether the verb should be singular or plural. For more information on countable and uncountable nouns, see Counting Nouns.
- Only some of Jaguar Juice was drunk. (uncountable, singular)
- Only some of Cougar Cookies were missing. (countable, plural)
COLLECTIVE NOUNS AS SUBJECTS
Collective nouns are names of collections or groups that can be considered as individual units. Since most are countable nouns, they usually take a singular verb (unless pluralized, i.e. the army is coming this way vs. the armies are coming this way). That being said, a singular collective noun can take a plural verb if the writer is trying to emphasize the individual members of the group. For more on collective nouns, see Counting Nouns.
- The government is usually identified by its country and not its political leader.
- His family comes from Narnia. (singular)
- His family come from Narnia, Neverland and Wonderland. (plural)
Countable nouns that are considered an amount or measurement (e.g. weight, distance, time, money) are usually considered as singular subjects.
- If you can afford it, $750 is enough to buy both Boardwalk and Park Place.
- I think 34685.526 years is a long time to wait for a spouse, even if he is your intergalactic soul mate.
Words such as number, half and majority are often considered collective nouns and can be either singular or plural.
- A 52% majority isn’t very comforting
- The majority are coming to Polkaroo’s pool party.
VERBS BETWEEN SINGULAR AND PLURAL NOUNS
The problem here arises with sentences that have a singular subject but plural predicate noun (or vice versa). Always remember that the verb agrees with the subject, no matter what may come later on in the sentence. Still, this can lead to an awkwardly worded sentence. You can avoid this by rewriting the sentence to make both the subject and predicate noun singular (or both plural), or by rewriting the sentence entirely. For example,
- Wrong: Dori’s downfall were shiny objects.
- Correct: Dori’s downfall was shiny objects.
- Rewrite: Shiny objects were Dori’s downfall.
- Rewrite: Dori was constantly distracted by shiny objects.
COMPOUND SUBJECT WITH HOODWINKING CONNECTORS
Compound subjects with and are obviously plural and the corresponding verbs should agree accordingly (NOTE: On rare occasions when the two subjects identify the same person or thing or when both are thought of as a unit, the verb is singular, e.g. My dog and my best friend was there for me that day). However, phrasal connectives (e.g. as well as, in addition to, together with) are prepositional phrases, not conjunctions. Therefore a singular subject followed by a phrasal connective still calls for the singular form of the verb. Even though this is grammatically correct, it can still come off sounding awkward. To solve this, rewrite the sentence with and.
- Wrong: The chicken as well as the turkey were convinced they could fly if they tried hard enough.
- Correct: The chicken as well as the turkey was convinced they could fly if they tried hard enough.
- Revised: The chicken and the turkey were convinced they could fly if they tried hard enough.
TRICK: Prepositional phrases are posers; they don’t actually make the subject plural.
SUBJECTS CONNECTED BY OR, NOR
The verb should always agree with the subject closest to it. For example:
- Wrong: Bert or Ernie have to call Elmo a.s.a.p.!
- Correct: Bert or Ernie has to call Elmo a.s.a.p.!
- Wrong: Neither his gossiping guppies nor his chastising chicken are worth the wait.
- Correct: Neither his gossiping guppies nor his chastising chicken is worth the wait.
SUBJECT AFTER VERB
This most commonly occurs with there and here constructions. The verb still has to agree with subject that follows the verb. Note that when compound singular nouns follow here or there, most writers use a singular verb (that only agrees with the first and closest noun).
- Now there are too many people who believe vampires sparkle in the sun.
- Here come the pantisocratic polar bears.
- Over her face glides a small stream of sorrows.
- BUT Here comes the superficial sock king and his associates.
NOTE that it always takes a singular verb.
- It is problems like these that make him rethink his mad mustard methods.
RELATIVE PRONOUNS AS SUBJECTS
Relative pronouns (who, which, and that) can be either singular or plural depending on their antecedent and the verb must agree accordingly.
- His success was due to the lion’s pride and perseverance, which have lasted throughout the years. (antecedent = pride and perseverance; plural)
Most issues with agreement in these cases stem from the use of phrases containing one of the _ or one of those _ that are followed by relative pronouns.
- She is one of the few princesses who like to play in the mud.
Here the verb is plural because the pronoun who refers to princesses. This type of construction only takes a singular verb when only is placed before one. For example,
- He is the only one of those politicians who has a soul.
TRICK: You can always rearrange the sentence to avoid this problem.
- Revised: Unlike most other princesses, she likes to play in the mud.
- Revised: He is the only politician with a soul there.
TITLES AS SUBJECTS
These should always be singular even if the words themselves are plural.
- Fried Green Tomatoes is my all-time favourite movie.
Correct any errors in subject-verb agreement in the following sentences.
1. Neither of the buck-toothed crocodiles look promising.Answer
2. The Corruption Committee were willing to review our shenanigans to see if we could be eligible for Crazy Cook status.Answer
3. The Earl of Earnest as well as the Duke of Daring were supposed to have called by now.Answer
4. None of my sneaky schemes has come to fruition!Answer
5. There’s so many Tofurkeys running around here!Answer
6. No matter what people may say, macaroni and cheese is not the same as Kraft Dinner.Answer
7. It's one of those things that get out of control in a split-second, like gerbil bowling.Answer
8. The princes or their stocky stalker are going to be here any minute.Answer
9. The main exhibitions at the fair were the art.Answer
10. There is an apple and an orange dancing to Bills, bills, bills, which haven't been popular for years.Answer
Dundurn Press. The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997.
Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.
Flick, Jane and Celia Millward. Handbook for Writers. 3rd Canadian ed. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company, Ltd., 1999.
Messenger, William E. et al. The Canadian Writer’s Handbook. 5th ed. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada, 2008.
Riley, Kathryn, et al. Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences. Superior, Wisc.: Parlay Press, 1999.
The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th ed. rev. and expanded. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Created by: Diana Franz