Subject Verb Agreement
What Is Subject-Verb Agreement?Ensuring subject-verb agreement means choosing the right version of a verb to match its subject. For example:
Subject-verb agreement is linked to "verb conjugation." Verb conjugation just means "how a verb changes to agree with various subjects." For example, here is the conjugation of the verb "to be" in the present tense:
|Subject||Conjugation of the Verb|
|he / she / it||is|
Here is the verb "to play" in the present tense.
|Subject||Conjugation of the Verb|
|he / she / it||plays|
Thirteen Issues Related to Subject-Verb AgreementEven though subject-verb agreement is a simple concept, sometimes, it is difficult to know whether your subject is singular or plural. In other words, it is not always easy to know whether you should be using a singular verb (e.g., "is" and "plays") or a plural one (e.g., "are" and "play").
Below are 13 issues that cause problems with subject-verb agreement. In all of these examples, the subject is shaded and the verb is in bold.
(Issue 1) "Someone" and "Anyone" Take Singular Verbs
- I hope that while so many people are out smelling the flowers, someone is taking the time to plant some. (Screenwriter Herbert Rappaport)
- The supreme irony of life is that hardly anyone gets out of it alive. (Author Robert Heinlein)
- Nobody is ever met at the airport when beginning a new adventure. (Author Elizabeth Warnock Fernea)
- No one knows what he can do till he tries. (Latin writer Publilius Syrus) (Why "he"?)
- If anyone goes to a psychiatrist, he ought to have his head examined. (Why "his"?)
- Anyone who forgets his passport will be sent home. (Why "his"?)
- Anyone who forgets his or her passport will be sent home. (This is acceptable, but it's clumsy)
- Anyone who forgets their passport will be sent home. (Even though, "their" is plural. This is considered preferable to using "his" or "his or her." It is called a "singular they/their.")
(Issue 2) "All" and "Some" Can Take a Singular or a Plural Verb
- All of the bread has been stolen. ("Bread" is singular, so "all" is treated as singular.)
- All of the cakes have been stolen. ("Cakes" is plural, so "all" is treated as plural.)
- My theory is that all of Scottish cuisine is based on a dare. (Actor Mike Myers) ("Cuisine" is singular, so "all" is treated as singular.)
- Some of the worst mistakes of my life have been haircuts. (Singer Jim Morrison) ("Mistakes" is plural, so "some" is treated as plural.)
(Issue 3) "Number Of" Takes a Plural Verb...Most of the Time
- A number of men were strongly opposed to the changes.
- Lee, a number of cakes have been stolen from the buffet.
- The number of women was sixty-four.
- The number of women were sixty-four.
(Issue 4) Terms Like "Half Of," "the Majority Of," and "a Percentage Of" Can Be Singular or Plural
- Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time. (Author E. B. White)
- Half of the world knows not how the other half lives. (Poet George Herbert)
- Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation. (Politician Henry Kissinger)
- My guess is that well over 80 percent of the human race goes without having a single original thought. (Journalist H. L. Mencken)
(Issue 5) "None" Can Take a Singular or Plural Verb
- None of the team is ready.
- None of the team are ready.
Also, keep an eye out for the problem with "his/her/their" (see Issue 1 above). Look at this example:
- None of the team has polished their boots. (This acceptable, but it's untidy.)
- None of the team have polished their boots.
(Issue 6) The Words after "As Well As" Are Not Part of the Subject
- The king along with his sons is visiting tomorrow.
- The king and his sons are visiting tomorrow.
(Issue 7) "Either" and "Neither" Are Singular
- I'm not keen on beef or lamb, but either is preferable to tofu.
- Neither of the sisters is eligible to attend.
(Issue 8) "Or" Does Not Conjoin
- The king or his daughter is visiting tomorrow.
- The king and his daughter are visiting tomorrow.
- Neither the king nor his daughter are visiting tomorrow. (This should be "is.")
- It's very tasty as it is. Neither salt nor pepper is required.
- Either the king or the queen is coming to present the awards. (The elements (shaded) are both singular. Therefore, the verb is singular.)
- Neither cakes nor chocolate are going to give you the nutrients you need. (Here, one of the elements ("cakes") is plural. Therefore, the verb is plural.)
- Neither cakes nor chocolate is going to give you the nutrients you need. (Here, the nearest element ("chocolate") is singular. Therefore, the verb is singular. Under the "Logic Rule," this would be wrong as "cakes" is plural.)
Here's a good tip: Edit your words to adhere to both rules. For example:
- Neither chocolate nor cakes are going to give you the nutrients you need. ("Logic Rule") (Proximity Rule)
(Issue 9) Beware Modifiers between the Subject and the Verb
- A crate of sardines is more expensive than I thought. ("A crate" is singular. The modifiers "of sardines" does not affect the verb. Therefore, "is" is correct.)
- Simon, who is the oldest of the four brothers and who, just as he did before last year's contest, has been suffering back spasms, is expected to take the first leg. ("Simon" agrees with "is." The modifier is long, but be sure to track back to the subject to ensure the verb agrees with it.)
- A container of nuts and bolts were found in the cellar. ("A container" is singular. The verb should be "was." Remember that "of nuts and bolts" is just a modifier. It does not affect the verb.)
(Issue 10) A List of Words That Cause Confusion
|Word||Singular or Plural?|
(even though it is the plural of "agendum")
Read more about "agenda" being singular.
(Unlike "data" and "agendum," "criteria" has retained its plural status because the singular "criterion" is still in common usage.)
Read more about "criteria" being plural.
|Data||Mostly singular nowadays|
(even though it is the plural of "datum")
Read more about "data" being singular.
(Note: "Pair of glasses" is singular.)
|Media||Singular or Plural|
(Treat "media" like a collective noun as opposed to the plural of "medium.")
(Note: "Pair of pliers" is singular.)
(Note: "Pair of scissors" is singular.)
(Note: "Pair of underpants" is singular.)
(Issue 11) Collective Nouns Can be Singular or Plural
- The jury is late returning to the courtroom. (Here, "the jury" is singular because it is considered as one unit.)
- The jury are all wearing different coloured shirts. (This time, "the jury" is plural because we're focused on the individuals.)
- The members of the jury are late returning to the courtroom.
(Issue 12) The Term "More Than One" Is Singular!
- More than one person was involved in this robbery.
- More than one swallow does a summer make, doesn't it?
- All I can say is that more than one of you have promised to return after the break.
(Issue 13) The Positive Element Governs the Verb
- The CEO not the board members makes the final decision. (Positive element is "the CEO." The negative element is "board members." The positive one is singular, hence "makes.")
- The kitchen has confirmed that the fish not the prawns was responsible for the vomiting outbreak. (The positive element is "the fish." The negative element is "the prawns." "The fish" governs the verb, hence "was.")