Singular or Plural after a Prepositional Phrase?

by Craig Shrives

Singular or Plural after a Prepositional Phrase?

When a term like "a box of nails" is the subject of a verb, the first word (i.e., "box") determines whether the verb is singular or plural. The word "box" is known as the simple subject. 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 just modifiers. In this case, "of nails" is a prepositional phrase because it starts with the preposition "of.")

Examples of Subjects with Prepositional Phrases

Here are some more examples with subjects that feature prepositional phrases. In these examples, the simple subjects and the verbs are in bold. The prepositional phrases are shaded.
  • The evacuation of the offices is the floor manager's responsibility. correct tick
  • (The simple subject is "evacuation," which is singular. Therefore, "is" is correct. The word "offices" in "of the offices" does not affect the verb. So, "are" would be wrong.)
  • A box of tapes were discovered in his car. wrong cross
  • (The word "box" is singular. The verb should be "was" and not "were.")
  • A combination of factors were the cause of the crash. wrong cross
  • (The word "combination" is singular.)
  • He [Bernard Shaw] hasn't an enemy in the world, and none of his friends like him. wrong cross (Playwright 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 preferable.)
prepositional phrase singular or plural verb?

More on the Word "None"

There is a 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 can't bear how it sounds, go plural.
  • None of the students was present. correct tick
  • (The words "of the students" is a prepositional phrase.)
  • None of the students were present. correct tick
  • (If you can't bear the first one, use "were" and fight like a cornered rat against your proof-reader.)
Here is another example with "none":
  • None of his friends is a lawyer. correct tick
  • None of his friends are lawyers. correct tick

Beware "All" and "Some"

The indefinite pronouns "all," "any," "more," "most," and "some" are singular when they refer to something singular but plural when they refer to something plural. So, with these, the word in the prepositional phrase does affect the verb. For example:
  • All of the bread has been eaten. correct tick
  • ("Bread" is singular, so the verb is singular.)
  • All of the cakes have been eaten. correct tick
  • ("Cakes" is plural, so the verb is plural.)
  • Some of the worst mistakes of my life have been haircuts. (Singer Jim Morrison) correct tick ("Mistakes" is plural, so the verb is plural.)
This also happens with terms like "a half," "a percentage," "a proportion," and "a majority of"
  • Half of the bread is missing. correct tick
  • ("Bread" is singular, so the verb is singular.)
  • The majority of the cakes are missing. correct tick
  • ("Cakes" is plural, so the verb is plural.)
Choosing the right verb to match your subject is called subject-verb agreement. Read more about subject-verb agreement.

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