Making subjects and verbs agree

Making subjects and verbs agree
Adapted from
The Bedford Handbook
Making subjects and verbs agree
Seventh Edition
Make the verb agree with its subject, not with a word that comes between.
Word groups often come between the subject and the verb in a sentence. Such word groups,
usually modifying the subject, may contain a noun that at first appears to be the subject. By
mentally stripping away such modifiers, you can isolate the noun that is in fact the subject.
The samples on the tray in the lab need testing.
High levels of air pollution causes
/ damage to the respiratory
The subject is levels, not pollution. Strip away the phrase of air pollution to hear the correct verb: levels cause.
NOTE: Phrases beginning with the prepositions as well as, in addition to, accompanied by,
together with, and along with do not make a singular subject plural.
The governor as well as his press secretary were shot.
To emphasize that two people were shot, the writer could use
and instead: The governor and his press secretary were shot.
Treat most subjects joined with and as plural.
A subject with two or more parts is said to be compound. If the parts are connected by and,
the subject is nearly always plural.
Leon and Jan often jog together.
Jill’s natural ability and her desire to help others has led to a
career in the ministry.
Ability and desire is a plural subject, so its verb should be
When the parts of the subject form a single unit or when they refer to the same
person or thing, treat the subject as singular.
Sue’s friend and adviser was surprised by her decision.
When a compound subject is preceded by each or every, treat it as singular.
Every car, truck, and van is required to pass inspection.
This exception does not apply when a compound subject is followed by each: Alan and Marcia
each have different ideas.
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With subjects joined with or or nor (or with either . . . or or neither . . . nor ),
make the verb agree with the part of the subject nearer to the verb.
If an infant or a child are having difficulty breathing, seek
medical attention immediately.
Neither the lab assistant nor the students was able to down-
load the information.
The verb must be matched with the part of the subject closer
to it: child is in the first sentence, students were in the second.
NOTE: If one part of the subject is singular and the other is plural, put the plural one last to
avoid awkwardness.
Treat most indefinite pronouns as singular.
Indefinite pronouns are pronouns that do not refer to specific persons or things. The following
commonly used indefinite pronouns are singular.
no one
Many of these words appear to have plural meanings, and they are often treated as such in
casual speech. In formal written English, however, they are nearly always treated as singular.
Each of the furrows have been seeded.
Everybody who signed up for the snowboarding trip were
taking lessons.
The subjects of these sentences are Each and Everybody. These
indefinite pronouns are third-person singular, so the verbs
must be has and was.
A few indefinite pronouns (all, any, none, some) may be singular or plural depending on
the noun or pronoun they refer to.
Some of our luggage was lost. None of his advice makes sense.
Some of the rocks are slippery. None of the eggs were broken.
When the meaning of none is emphatically “not one,” none may be treated as singular:
None [meaning “Not one”] of the eggs was broken. However, some experts advise using not one
instead: Not one of the eggs was broken.
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Treat collective nouns as singular unless the meaning is clearly plural.
Collective nouns such as jury, committee, audience, crowd, class, troop, family, and couple
name a class or a group. In American English, collective nouns are nearly always treated as
singular: They emphasize the group as a unit. Occasionally, when there is some reason to
draw attention to the individual members of the group, a collective noun may be treated as
To underscore the notion of individuality in the second sentence, many writers would add a
clearly plural noun such as members.
The class respects the teacher.
The class are debating among themselves.
The phrase the number is treated as singular, a number as plural.
The class members are debating among themselves.
NOTE: In general, when units of measurement are used with a singular noun, treat them as
singular; when they are used with a plural noun, treat them as plural.
The number of school-age children is declining.
A number of children are attending the wedding.
Make the verb agree with its subject even when the subject follows the verb.
Three-fourths of the pie has been eaten.
One-fourth of the drivers were drunk.
Verbs ordinarily follow subjects. When this normal order is reversed, it is easy to become confused. Sentences beginning with there is or there are (or there was or there were) are inverted;
the subject follows the verb.
There are surprisingly few children in our neighborhood.
There was a social worker and a crew of twenty volunteers at
the scene of the accident.
The subject, worker and crew, is plural, so the verb must be
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Occasionally you may decide to invert a sentence for variety or effect. When you do so,
check to make sure that your subject and verb agree.
At the back of the room is a small aquarium and an enormous
The subject, aquarium and terrarium, is plural, so the verb
must be are. If the correct sentence seems awkward, begin with
the subject: A small aquarium and an enormous terrarium are at
the back of the room.
Make the verb agree with its subject, not with a subject complement.
One basic sentence pattern in English consists of a subject, a linking verb, and a subject
complement: Jack is a securities lawyer. Because the subject complement names or describes
the subject (Jack), it is sometimes mistaken for the subject.
These exercises are a way to test your ability to perform
under pressure.
A tent and a sleeping bag is the required equipment for all
Tent and bag is the subject, not equipment.
A major force in today’s economy are women — as earners,
consumers, and investors.
Force is the subject, not women. If the corrected version seems
awkward, make women the subject: Women are a major force in
today’s economy — as earners, consumers, and investors.
Who, which, and that take verbs that agree with their antecedents.
Like most pronouns, the relative pronouns who, which, and that have antecedents, nouns or
pronouns to which they refer. Relative pronouns used as subjects of subordinate clauses take
verbs that agree with their antecedents.
Take a suit that travels well.
Constructions such as one of the students who [or one of the things that] cause problems
for writers. Do not assume that the antecedent must be one. Instead, consider the logic of the
Our ability to use language is one of the things that sets
/ us
apart from animals.
The antecedent of that is things, not one. Several things set us
apart from animals.
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When the word only comes before one, you are safe in assuming that one is the
antecedent of the relative pronoun.
Veronica was the only one of the first-year Spanish students
who were fluent enough to apply for the exchange program.
The antecedent of who is one, not students. Only one student
was fluent enough.
Words such as athletics, economics, mathematics, physics, statistics, measles,
mumps, and news are usually singular, despite their plural form.
Statistics are among the most difficult courses in our
EXCEPTION: When they describe separate items rather than a collective body of knowledge,
words such as athletics, mathematics, physics, and statistics are plural: The statistics on
steroid use are alarming.
Titles of works, company names, words mentioned as words,
and gerund phrases are singular.
Lost Cities describe the discoveries of many ancient
Delmonico Brothers specialize in organic produce and
additive-free meats.
Controlled substances are a euphemism for illegal drugs.
A gerund phrase consists of an -ing verb form followed by any objects, complements, or
modifiers. Treat gerund phrases as singular.
Encountering busy signals are troublesome to our clients, so
we have hired two new switchboard operators.
Copyright © 2006 by Bedford/St. Martin’s
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