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A Pedant’s Guide to the English Language – Part Six: Subject-Verb Agreement

For us native speakers, subject-verb agreement largely takes care of itself; our instinctive grammatical understanding guides us to the verb form a particular subject requires. [1] Even for the English learner, subject-verb compatibility is hardly the cause of sleepless nights. For a singular subject, you require a singular form of the verb, for a plural subject, a plural. That third-person forms, he, she, and it, require an additional -s or -es in the simple present is hardly confounding.


And yet, the matter of subject-verb agreement, as my dedication of a blog to it implies, is not always so rudimentary. Duly, I will draw your attention to such scenarios, in which subject-verb agreement no longer seems the flat-track we expect and even assumes the guise of a somewhat sticky wicket. But never fear. By the end of my weekly rambling, you should be able to play even the most deviant subject-verb delivery with a pretty straight bat.


Dealing with and


Plural verbs with two or more subjects connected by and require the plural form:


My father and I are going fishing this afternoon.


In this instance, we are talking about two individuals, hence the plural verb. Nonetheless, in such cases as these, our task is not as simple as looking out for and because the presence of it alone does not mean we are dealing with a plural subject.


Pony and trap, for instance, isn’t the quickest means of transport. The bed and breakfast was delightful. On the subject of early morning sustenance, you might recall an earlier discussion of bacon and eggs. [2] Indeed, when I had bacon and eggs this morning, it was very tasty.

“And” alone does not mean a plural verb form; a plural subject is that which demands a plural verb. If an expression such as “My father and I” can be replaced by “we” or “they” it is definitely plural.


Subject-verb Separation


Confusion can also arise due to complex syntax; Darren, along with his two brothers, Duane and Derrick, goes swimming every Tuesday. However, Darren, Duane, and Derrick go swimming every Tuesday. We note here that, even when a phrase, such as along with or as well as, separates the subject from the verb, the words contained therein do not affect the verb form.


Ergo, in the first sentence we require a singular verb-form as Darren is a singular subject, whilst the converse can be said of the second. This is certainly peculiar, considering we are referring to the same group of people and the same activity.


Units


Singular verbs are often required for distances, periods of time, sums of money. Three miles is around five kilometres. Ten minutes seems like an age when you’re running. As illustrated in the following example, to use the plural can be misleading.


We are playing cards and I comment on the amount of money being wagered: ten pounds is at stake. I follow our rule here, as outlined. There are ten pounds at stake, in contrast, suggests that the grand total of ten pounds, consisting of ten, individual pound coins is being ventured.[2]


The effect of the singular verb is to address the measurement in its totality; to divide a unit into its constituent parts, in this case referring to ten pound coins, as opposed to what really matters, the total amount gambled, appears nonsensical.


Portions


Talk of parts brings us nicely on to words indicating portions, such as a lot of, a majority of, some, none, all. Here, the noun after the of guides us as to which verb form to use: none of you are impressed by my blogs; a lot of time was wasted reading them. Subject and verb agree, though hopefully you don’t…


Collective Nouns


When it comes to these, subtle differences in meaning, such as we have highlighted elsewhere, are even more pertinent. The jury was unanimous; to employ a singular verb, in this example, stresses the unity of the jury as a body. And yet, at another time, the jury were undecided. This time, the reality of the multiplicity of this group is emphasized, in fitting with their inability to reach a common resolve.


In short, there is some room for manoeuvre. If you are talking about Soviet Russia, you might observe that the Communist Party was in power. Contrastingly, the party at table fourteen at the Ritz are having a splendid evening. Such semantic considerations are prudent. Nonetheless, it might be added that singular verbs are more associated with collective nouns in American English, whilst the opposite can be said of British English.


To most certainly avoid is inconsistency between the singular and plural: the government is deciding how they should react. Either the government decides how it should react, or the government decide how they should react. Try not to get caught in between.


*If you struggle with this topic and others like it, get in touch with Short Proofing: we are here to help!


Postscript: the Subjunctive


The subjunctive in English, as in other languages, is becoming increasingly rare. If I was a billionaire, I’d eradicate world hunger. Strictly speaking, we ought to write “if I were” but the former version is common not only in speech but also in writing. Even in formal modes, the subjunctive can come across as stilted. As far as subject-verb agreement is concerned, the subjunctive is a marked form, in so far as it defies the expectations of the usual, indicative verb forms.



References

[1] Linguists such as Noam Chomsky, known as proponents of nativism, claim that we are born with an innate aptitude for grammar.

[2] A Pedant’s Guide to the English Language – Part One: Using Commas

[3] Pound notes, in Britain at least, are no longer in circulation.


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