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prepositional phrases - singular or plural

The Quick Answer
When a term like a box of nails is the subject of a verb, the first word (i.e., a box) is the one that determines whether the verb is singular or plural. The prepositional phrase of nails has no effect on the verb at all.

Find the Subject

When a term like a box of nails is the subject of a verb, the first word (i.e., a box) determines whether the verb is singular or plural. The words that follow (in this case, of nails) do not affect the verb at all, even though they are usually physically closer to it. (These words are known as a prepositional phrase because they start with a preposition (in this case, of).



More examples:
  • The evacuation of the offices is the floor manager's responsibility.
  • (evacuation is singular, hence is and not are)
  • A box of tapes were discovered in his car.
  • (The word box is singular. It should be was and not were.)
  • A combination of factors were the cause of the crash. †
  • (combination is singular)
  • He [Bernard Shaw] hasn't an enemy in the world, and none of his friends like him. (Oscar Wilde)
    (Marking this wrong is a little harsh, but you should try to treat the word none as singular (if for no other reason than many of your grammar-savvy readers will want it to be singular). Therefore, none of his friends likes him is slightly more acceptable. Read the Beware section on the right.)
Note

Subject of a Verb?

Verbs are doing words like to jump, to print, to be (am, are, is etc.), to see etc.) (See lesson Verbs.)

The subject of a verb is the person or thing doing the action.

  • The mouse is still under the fridge.
  • (Mouse is the subject of the verb to be.)
  • Helen's boss drinks like a fish during the day.
  • (Helen's boss is the subject of the verb to drink.)
Beware

Beware of None

There is a growing misconception that the word none is always singular. It's not. It can be singular or plural. However, this "rule" is so well promulgated, many of your grammar-savvy readers will expect it to be singular. If your none translates as not one, treat it as singular. If it better translates as not any, treat it as plural. Your best bet is to remove the prepositional phrase, and then play it by ear. Or, try your hardest to treat none as singular, but, if you canít bear how it sounds, go plural.
  • None of them was present.
  • (of them – prepositional phrase)
  • None of them were present.
  • (If you canít bear the first one, use were and fight like a cornered rat against your proof-reader.)
  • None of his friends is a lawyer.
  • None of his friends are lawyers.