Understanding subject verb agreement
Let’s start with a positive: there are a few basics of grammar which most native speakers of English have no problems with (hoorah!). For instance, it comes naturally to the majority of us to use a singular verb if only one person or thing is the subject (that is, doing the action) of a sentence or clause, and if there are several people or things involved, then we correctly opt for a plural verb:
Singular subject/verb: She works the night shift at a hospital.
Plural subject/verb: On average, they work five evenings a week.
The matching of subjects and verbs in terms of number is part of a wider grammatical concept which is known as agreement or concord. However, it’s not all plain sailing: I’ve blogged about some of the pitfalls before, in the specific context of collective nouns, but during the course of my research forays into the Oxford English Corpus and other spoken or written sources, I’ve noticed that there are several other aspects of subject-verb agreement which are causing uncertainty.
Do you reckon you already know it all? Excellent – prove that you’re on your grammatical toes by tackling this quick quiz. What are the subjects in the following sentences? Do the subjects and verbs agree? I’ll provide the answers during the course of the article.
a) Whisky, along with rare birds, is one of the magnets drawing visitors to this island.
b) There’s some beautiful engravings in those early botanical books.
c) Limitless quantities of easy-drinking wine was served to wash the meal down.
d) His speciality is meat dishes such as steak and casseroles.
e) More than one in five Britons is now classed as obese.
f) Fish and chips is a British institution.
g) Either his drawings or the map are inaccurate.
h) Mutuality and respect are part of our tradition.
i) Neither kid seem that bothered by it all.
Are you starting to realize that some of these are tricky to sort out? That was what I was aiming for: these sentences all exemplify areas where some of the most common mistakes are made. So here are some tips to help you to steer clear of future puzzlement.
1. Spot the subject
If you’re not sure whether to use a singular or a plural verb, think carefully about what the subject of a sentence or clause actually is. The subjects in these simple examples are easy to identify and are clearly either singular or plural:
|singular subject||singular verb|
|The cat||was||curled up in front of the fire.|
|His speciality||is||meat dishes such as steak and casseroles.|
|plural subject||plural verb|
|We||were||tired and went to bed early.|
|Five friends||go||to the woods for a spot of rest and relaxation.|
However, the following two cases may be a little more thought-provoking:
? Limitless quantities of easy-drinking wine was served to wash the meal down.
? More than one in five Britons is now classed as obese.
If you thought the above sentences were incorrect, you were right. In the first example, it’s easy to make mistakes when the subject is quite long and the noun nearest to the verb is a singular or uncountable one (such as wine). Here, the overall subject is a plural phrase (limitless quantities of easy-drinking wine) and therefore the verb should be the plural form were rather than the singular was:
✓ Limitless quantities of easy-drinking wine were served to wash the meal down.
As for the second sentence, phrases such as more than one in five /ten etc. can cause problems because people may think the subject is singular. In fact, the subject is plural (Britons, not one Briton) so you should use the plural verb are:
✓ More than one in five Britons are now classed as obese.
However, if you use the phrase more than one with a singular noun, then the verb should also be singular, even though the underlying meaning is plural:
- More than one bathroom in the home is definitely an asset.
2. Is there more than one subject?
What should you do if the subject of a sentence or clause is two or more people or things, linked by the coordinating conjunctions or or and?
- When two singular subjects are joined by and, the verb should almost always be in the plural:
Bill and Karen were introduced by a mutual friend.
Mutuality and respect are part of our tradition.
- The main exception to this rule is when the subject is a specific phrase that’s treated as a single idea or entity – this means that it should take a singular verb:
Fish and chips is a British institution.
Joanna’s rum and coke was equal parts rum and coke.
- When or separates two singular subjects, the verb should usually be in the singular:
A dog or another small mammal is not just for Christmas, it is for life.
- When one of the subjects linked by or is singular and the other plural, the verb normally agrees with the one that’s nearest to it.
– Nearest subject is plural – plural verb:
It’s pleasant when my family or my friends dream about what we’d do if one of us won the lottery.
– Nearest subject is singular – singular verb:
It’s up to them to have children when they feel ready, not when their parents or anyone else tells them to.
- Is there more than one subject in the following examples?
? Whisky, along with rare birds, is one of the magnets drawing visitors to this island.
? My brother Sam, as well as my sister Holly, are very good tennis players.
No, both of these sentences have a single subject (whisky and my brother Sam respectively). This means that the first sentence is correct (the singular subject has a singular verb) but the second one should be reworded:
✓ My brother Sam, as well as my sister Holly, is a very good tennis player.
This rule should also be followed with similar parenthetical words and phrases, such as accompanied by, including, or together with. The easiest way to get the agreement right is to imagine the sentence without the extra phrase, or to think of the phrase as being in brackets:
My brother Sam is a very good tennis player.
My brother Sam (as well as my sister Holly) is a very good tennis player.
3. Where’s the subject?
Not all sentences or clauses follow the typical word order in English, which is a subject followed by a verb. Exceptions include sentences beginning with here is/here are, there is/there are, and questions which start with where is/where are:
? There’s some beautiful engravings in those early botanical books.
? Where’s my keys?
? Here’s some tips to help you get it right.
The above expressions occur frequently in informal spoken English. People are often not aware that they’re ungrammatical, perhaps because they forget that the contractions here’s, there’s, and where’s actually contain a shortened form of the singular verbs is or has. Although such constructions are common, they are not regarded as standard English and you should avoid them in formal and written contexts. The subjects in all these examples are plural, so the verbs should be plural too:
✓ There are some beautiful engravings in those early botanical books.
✓ Where are my keys?
✓ Here are some tips to help you get it right.
The main meaning of either is ‘one or the other of two people or things’. Similarly, neither means ‘not one nor the other of two people or things’. When neither and either function as determiners and appear without of, you should always use a singular noun and verb:
Neither kid seems that bothered by it all.
There is little evidence that either parent has addressed these issues.
- The expressions neither of and either of are followed by a plural noun or pronoun. In formal and written English, the correct verb form should be singular:
I think either of them is qualified to be president.
Neither of her ex-husbands was remotely attractive.
- The use of a plural verb in such cases is regarded as more informal, but most grammar guides advise that it’s acceptable to do so if you want to emphasize the fact that the whole statement is plural:
Neither of his parents drink or smoke.
Do either of these machines work?
- In the constructions either. . . or and neither. . . nor, you can use either singular or plural subjects, which should be matched to singular or plural verbs, respectively:
It’s one of the best songs that either he or anyone else has composed.
Neither the politicians nor their advisers are able to determine these outcomes.
- Sometimes there’s a mix of singular and plural subjects in these expressions – what verb should you use?
Either his drawings or the map is [?] are [?] inaccurate.
Neither she nor her managers was [?]were [?] aware of what was happening.
Some guides advise that you should follow the rule given above for or when it occurs in the same situation. So if the singular subject is second, use a singular verb, but if the plural subject is second, use a plural verb:
Either his drawings or the map is inaccurate.
Neither she nor her managers were aware of what was happening.
However, other authorities recommend that a plural verb can sound more natural in both cases, even if it’s preceded by a singular noun:
Either his drawings or the map are inaccurate.
If you’re not sure, why not rephrase the sentence so that the plural subject is nearest to the plural verb?
Either the map or his drawings are inaccurate.
Or you could do a more radical recasting of the sentence, adding a singular verb:
Either his drawings are inaccurate, or the map is.
Has this helped to reassure you or to fill in a few gaps in your knowledge? Let us know if there are other cases where you’re puzzled about subject-verb agreement, and we’ll try to demystify them in a future blog.