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In today’s post, I will review an important aspect of English grammar: subject-verb agreement. I’ll review some of the basic terminology and concepts and discuss a couple of points that we proofreaders find cause writers trouble. In my next post, I’ll get into some more detailed examples and sticky points.
Terminology and the Basics
A sentence must have a subject and a verb.
Ex. The cat chases the dog. The cat is smaller than the dog. The cat is eaten by the dog.
As shown in the above examples, the subject is the person or thing doing something, being described or identified, or having an action done to it. The verb is the word in the sentence describing action or being.
Subject-verb agreement is all about subjects agreeing in number with verbs. In other words, if you have a singular (one person or thing) subject, like cat, you need a singular verb. If you have a plural (two or more people or things) subject, you need a plural verb. The above examples all have singular subjects.
These examples have plural subjects.
Ex. The cats chase the dog. The cats are smaller than the dog. The cats are eaten by the dog.
Note that with plural subjects, chases (singular) becomes chase (plural), and is (singular) becomes are (plural).
These examples all have simple subjects and subject-verb agreement is pretty straightforward in these cases. Below, I will detail some cases where it’s a bit trickier to make sure subjects and verbs are paired properly.
Phrases between Subject and Verb
Sometimes a phrase modifies a subject and comes between the subject and the verb. When that phrase ends in a plural noun, some writers get confused and use a plural noun that is not called for.
Wrong: The cat who loves bananas are smaller than the dog.
Right: The cat who loves bananas is smaller than the dog.
The second sentence is correct because the subject is “cat,” not “bananas,” and “cat” is singular, so the verb must be singular.
Some subjects contain more than one element joined with the words “and,” “or,” and “nor.” Compound subjects joined by the word and are always plural.
Ex. The cat and the mouse are in the house.
When the compounds are formed with or or nor, there are two rules you may follow. The standard rule is that if both of the elements are singular, the compound subject takes a singular verb and if either of the elements is plural, the compound subject takes a plural verb.
Ex. The brown cat or the white dog has the first appointment. (singular + singular subjects, singular verb)
The brown cat or the white dogs have the first appointment. (singular + plural subjects, plural verb)
The brown cats or the white dog have the first appointment. (plural + singular subjects, plural verb)
The brown cats or the white dog have the first appointment. (plural + plural subjects, plural verb)
According to the proximity rule, the verb takes its number from the noun or pronoun (words like he, she, they) closest to it in the sentence. Below, the word dog is singular and the word dogs is plural, so the first sentence has a singular verb and the second has a plural verb.
Ex. The brown cats or the white dog has the first appointment. (subject closest to verb singular, singular verb)
The brown cat or the white dogs have the first appointment. (subject closest to verb plural, plural verb)
Both of these rules also apply to cases of neither/nor and either/or. To see how that works, take any of the brown cat(s) and white dog(s) sentences above and rewrite with neither/nor or either/or.
Ex. Either the brown cat or the white dog has the first appointment.
To my ear, the proximity rule with a singular verb often sounds odd (The brown cats or the white dog has the first appointment), so I personally favor the standard rule.
Now that you’ve dipped your toe in the water of subject-verb agreement, look out for next month’s post, in which I will continue my discussion of subject-verb agreement with many specific examples of words and phrases that give people the most trouble.
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