When a noun or pronoun is the subject of a verb, the verb form must match what’s called the number (either singular or plural) of the subject. Such matching is called agreement. Several centuries ago, English verbs had a number of different forms both in the singular and the plural. Now, however, with the exception of the verb be, there is only one change in form, in the third person singular of the present tense. (For an explanation of person, see Pronouns.)

  singular plural
first person I go, I rock we go, we rock
second person you go, you rock you go, you rock
third person he goes, she rocks they go, they rock

Be takes the following forms in the present and simple past tenses:

  singular plural
first person I am, I was we are, we were
second person you are, you were you are, you were
third person he is, she was they are, they were

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Agreement of Subjects and Finite Verbs

When a single noun phrase (a noun by itself or with it’s modifiers) comes right before its finite verb, there may be little problem in getting subjects and finite verbs to agree. But in some situations it may not always be easy to feel what the subject of the finite verb actually is. Here are some possibly tricky situations (the finite verbs are italicized):

Coordinate noun phrases usually take a plural finite verb:

Now, Jack and Jill go up the escalator.

ERROR: Jumbo’s phlegmatic personality and his uncanny innate ability to tap dance has endeared him to audiences.[By the time he reached the finite verb, the writer forgot personality, which coordinates with ability. The finite verb should be have.]

Sometimes nouns of a different number come in between the subject and finite verb:

ERROR: The President of the Society of Vultures love road kill.

ERROR: The Big Beaks of the Scavenger Club is organizing a carrion night.

The writers evidently registered vultures next to love and Scavenger Club next to is; they hadn’t checked for sentence rhythm and were fooled by their eyes. The main words of the subjects are President and Beaks.

The President of the Society of Vultures loves road kill.

The Big Beaks of the Scavenger Club are organizing a carrion night.

Here are two from newscasts:

ERROR: A third week of protests rage on. [Week is the subject, so the finite verb should have been rages. But a raging week is a distracting metaphor. “The protests rage on for a third week” would work.

ERROR: A new generation of weapons are making their way into Afganistan. [Generation is singular: the verb should be is.]

If you’ve inverted the subject and finite verb, check that an earlier noun phrase hasn’t distracted you:

ERROR: But suddenly out of the darkened sky swoops seven fat vultures! [The subject of swoop is vultures, not sky.]

But suddenly out of the darkened sky swoop seven fat vultures!

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Agreement with Collective Nouns

Collective nouns refer to groups of people or of things: Group itself is a collective noun, as are, for example, class, bunch, flock, gang, family, team, and corporation. Collective nouns are generally considered singular units:

The whole flock is nuts.

Jack clears the last candlestick and the crowd is going wild! It’s cheering like mad!

Our committee is so democratic that it even lets jerks like you join.

In keeping with this logic, we’d say, “Charlie Brown’s team hasn’t ever won,” and if we think of the team as composed of individuals, we’d ordinarily use terms such as “team members” or “the players.” If, however, the meaning clearly refers to the individual members that compose a group, a plural verb is proper:

The crew are always barfing over the side.

The flock were wearing their new migration outfits.

Certain collective nouns (such as all, half, some, none, majority, minority, and number) refer to quantities or numbers or divisions of things. These are singular when they refer to the totality of the people or things that compose them and plural when they refer to the individual items that have been “collected.” Sometimes one way of looking at the situation is just as good as the other:

The flock isn’t unanimous, but the majority want (or wants) to stop over in Alberta.

Also, a number of them have (or has) sore wings.

Half of them hope (or hopes) to abolish in-flight quacking.

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Agreement with Dependent Clauses and Non-Finite Verb Phrases

When dependent clauses and non-finite verb phrases (italicized in the following examples) function as subjects, they are always singular in number:

What octopuses don’t need is a larger number of tentacles.

That drunken elephants are hard to carry is a self-evident fact.

Putting fleas in your roommate’s shoes generally leads to arguments.

To stuff elephants requires lots of peanuts.

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Agreement with Each and Every

Coordinate noun phrases modified by each or every are singular:

Every Jack and every Jill loves hill climbing.

Each and every hypocrite was supplied with a crying towel.

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Agreement with Phrases Connected by Or, Nor, and But

Coordinate noun phrases connected by or, nor, or but are singular or plural depending on the following considerations:

If both nouns are singular, the combination is singular:

Neither Miss Hiss nor Ms. Beebs is performing in “The Hissing Cantata.”

Fang or Jumbo usually sits there.

Not hypocrisy but smarminess was his downfall.

If both noun phrases are plural, the combination is plural:

Neither cookies nor chocolate mice make my mouth water.

If one noun phrase is singular and the other is plural, the agreement is governed by the noun phrase positioned closer to the finite verb:

Either Snow White or the Dwarfs have signed the contract.

Either the Dwarfs or Snow White edits the Prince’s blogs.

Neither the fleas nor Jumbo was hired to perform.

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