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Subject-Verb Agreement II

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October 31, 2022
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In last month’s post, I reviewed the basics of subject-verb agreement: definitions of subjects and verbs, how they agree, and common issues that arise when a phrase comes between the subject and verb and when there’s a compound subject. In today’s post, I will discuss some finer details of subject-verb agreement.

Collective, Non-Count/Mass, and Invariable Nouns

Simple, regular nouns like “bus” and “cloud” cause minimal issues with subject-verb agreement because they have clearly identifiable singular and plural forms, such as “bus-buses,” “cloud-clouds,” “eye-eyes,” and “book-books.” Usually, plurality is shown with an added -s or -es, but there are also words like person-people and mouse-mice.

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Collective, non-count/mass, and invariable nouns can be a little trickier. Collective nouns are nouns that name a collection of things, such as “army,” “set” (e.g., of tools), “fleet” (e.g., of ships), “herd” (e.g., of cows) , and “chorus” (e.g., of singers). Non-count/mass nouns name things that can’t be counted, like “sugar” and “water.” Invariable nouns have only one, plural-appearing form, like “scissors,” “molasses,” politics,” and “pants.” Here are the rules for each:

  • Collective nouns usually take singular verbs:
    • The choir was singing “Amazing Grace.”
  • *Exception: When the individuals who are make up a collective noun can be seen as acting independently, use a plural verb:
    • The staff are each taking separate cars to the training.
      (When not referring to the individuals in the group, this would be: The staff is on alert.)

To my ear these both sound a bit odd, so I might tend to eliminate the construction by using a noun phrase for “staff” instead:

  • The staff members are each taking separate cars to the training.
  • Non-count/mass nouns take singular verbs:
    • The sugar is in the cabinet.
  • *Exception: Non-count/mass nouns can be use as plurals to refer to different types of that thing.
    • Various sugars are available to sweeten your beverage.
  • Despite representing something we see as a singular object/idea, invariable nouns take plural verbs:
    • The scissors are on the table.
    • My pants are on backward.

The Word “Data

For a long time, the word “data” was simply looked at as a mass noun and thus took a singular verb (even though “data” is the plural of “datum”), like this:

  • Technical data is plentiful on the subject.

More recently, some dictionaries and style guides have shifted to using a plural verb with data, like this:

  • Technical data are plentiful on the subject.

Here are a few rules you can keep in mind to get it right with the word data:

  • For AP style, treat “data” as singular for general audiences and plural for scientific/technical audiences.
  • For APA, treat “data” as plural.
  • For AMA, the word “data” is almost always plural.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style advises to pick one usage and just be consistent.
  • Merriam-Webster’s dictionary (our house dictionary) explains “data” can be used as “a plural noun (like earnings) . . . and as an abstract mass noun (like information).”
  • If you are not using a particular style or dictionary, follow Chicago’s suggestion of being consistent.

Note that there are other nouns coming from Latin that you’ve got to be careful with because their singular and plural forms do not follow standard English patterns indicating grammatical number. So just remember that some words’ forms follow the same singular and plural patterns as “datum” and “data,” such as “medium” (“mediums” refers only to physics and sizes) and “media” and “bacterium” and “bacteria.” Make sure to use singular and plural verbs accordingly.

Dummy Subjects

In a previous post, I wrote about the dummy subject, which is the word “there” or “it” in constructions, such as, “It is nice to feel needed,” and, “There are dogs in the yard.” In the first example, “it” stands in for “to feel needed” and in the second “there” stands in for “dogs”—singular and plural subjects, respectively—so the verbs must be “is” and “are.”

Writers get into trouble at times with dummy subject constructions because they lose sight of what the dummy is standing in for and therefore use the wrong verb. Or they write as they speak, as in, “There’s  chickens running around the barn!” In this case, “there” stands in for chickens (plural) so the verb must be “are,” rather than “is”: “There are chickens running around the barn!”

Even more troublesome is when there is/are constructions are used with lists, as in, “There were ten cookies, four servings of chocolate mousse, and a pie in the dessert case.” A list, by its nature, is a plurality, so the verb must be plural. Sometimes, when items in the list are singular, using a plural verb can sound awkward, as in, “There were a pie, ten cookies, and four servings of chocolate mousse in the dessert case.” As you can see, arranging the items so the plural verb (are) is by a plural noun (ten cookies) sounds much more natural.

It’s also possible to cut out the dummy subject construction entirely, such as changing, “There is a book, a pencil, and a calculator on the table” (which is incorrect, because “a book, a pencil, and a calculator” should take a plural verb), but, “There are a book, a pencil and a calculator on the table” can sound strange. So another way to avoid this problem is rearranging the sentence to avoid the dummy subject: “A book, and pencil, and a calculator are on the table.”

So it’s important to be mindful of subject-verb agreement with dummy subject sentences, and avoid using the constructions when in doubt about whether you’ve got the agreement correct.

Singulars Made Up of Plurals

Singular things made up of plural objects (a box of apples) can also be confusing. With “a box of apples,” the word “box” is the subject. Because box is singular, it takes a singular verb: “The box of apples is in the trunk.”

None Is Singular

And now for a really tricky one. There can only be one “none.” There’s no way to have multiple “nones” (outside of mathematics). So, “none” is singular. So, if you have a plural subject like “calendars,” it’s: “The new year’s calendars are on sale.” Of if your plural subject just regards some of that group, such as “three of the calendars,” it’s: “Three of the new year’s calendars are on sale.”

However, if only one of the calendars is on sale, it’s, well: “Only one of the new year’s calendars is on sale.” So the same is true for “none”: “None of the new year’s calendars are on sale.”

Proper subject-verb agreement is definitely a must have for writing situations where you are trying to present a highly professional or academic tone, so make sure to carefully proofread your writing for incorrect verb forms, or pay the professionals at ProofreadingPal to help you with that sometimes-tricky task!

Sarah P.

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