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Sound Writing

Subsection 7.2.1 Problems with Subject-Verb Agreement

As we have seen, subjects and verbs (predicates) are the primary components of any sentence. Therefore, it is important that they “agree,” or match each other in terms of plurality. In other words, single subjects require singular verbs, and plural subjects require plural verbs. For instance, in Standard American English, you wouldn’t say “Amanda jog to the gym,” but rather “Amanda jogs to the gym.” Similarly, if the subject is plural, you would change the verb accordingly: “The soccer players is tired” would become “The soccer players are tired.” Use the following guidelines to help you figure out if the subject and verb of your sentence “agree.”

Subsubsection Subject-Verb Agreement Rules

Any student of a foreign language knows that consistent subject and verb agreement can be a pain. Even in a first language, writers and speakers alike can confuse whether a word is singular or plural (a group?—hint: it’s singular), or—in the middle of complicated sentences—forget whether the subject of their sentence was singular or plural. Thankfully, we have the opportunity to revise when we write!
List 7.2.1. Strategies for Maintaining Subject-Verb Agreement
Here are a few rules to help guide you through tricky sentences.
  • When the subject of a sentence is composed of two or more nouns/pronouns connected by “and,” use a plural verb.
  • When the subject of a sentence is composed of two or more nouns/pronouns connected by “or” or “nor,” make the verb correspond with the noun or pronoun closest to it.
  • When the subject of a sentence is a collective noun (group, jury, band, etc.) or a title (of a book, play, country, etc.), always make the verb singular.
  • When a phrase sits in between the subject and the verb, be sure that your verb agrees with your subject, not with the phrase.

Example 7.2.2. Agreement with Multiple Subjects.

“Professors and the university president meet with students frequently.”

Example 7.2.3. Agreement with Multiple Possible Subjects.

Either the university president or professors meet with students frequently.”
Either professors or the university president meets with students frequently.”

Example 7.2.4. Agreement with a Collective Noun.

“I hope that band plays at the club fair again.”
“The newest edition of Ebony Magazine is great.”

Example 7.2.5. Agreement Across a Phrase.

“The number of on-campus trees grows each year.”
“The orientation leader, alongside all of their orientees, was excited to reach the end of the trail.”
This graphic points out subject verb agreement in the sentence, "The number of on-campus trees grows each year." Arrows point from the noun "number" and the verb "grows" to the text "Subject-verb agreement!" to indicate that these are the subject and verb that agree. The noun "tree" is circled and accompanied by the following text: "While it may be tempting to write ’grow’ because of the plural ’trees,’’ remember that the SUBJECT of the sentence is singular: the number!"
There are also some English words, especially in the sciences, that have tricky plural forms, so you might not even realize that the word you’re using is actually plural. One great example is the word data, which is plural (“The data suggest that. . .”).
Other examples include criteria/criterion, media/medium, and phenomena/phenomenon.

Note 7.2.6.

What may seem like problems with subject-verb agreement might actually be correct subject-verb agreement in another variety of English. See Section 6.3 to read more.

Subsubsection Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

Problems with agreement occur most commonly when a writer mentions a subject, a movie director, for example, and then uses a pronoun to refer back to that subject. When the subject’s gender is unspecified, it is unclear whether the subject (in this case, the director) should be referred to as “he” or “she.” Because the plural pronoun “they” is gender-neutral, many writers, consciously or not, opt to use “they” instead of “he,” “she,” or the more cumbersome phrase “he or she.” (see Subsection 7.1.2)
A sentence using “they” but referring to a singular pronoun looks like this:
“I liked what the director of the movie did. They did a good job.”
In terms of grammatical correctness, formal, standard English requires writers to make the correct agreement between a pronoun and its antecedent (i.e., you have to use singular pronouns for singular antecedents). For a gender-unspecified singular antecedent, then, a writer has a few options: to use the phrase “he or she,” to make the subject plural if possible, or to avoid the issue altogether by restructuring the sentence. A sentence of this sort would therefore take one of these three forms:
  • “I liked what the director of the movie did. He or she did a good job.”
  • “That movie had a good director. When directors pay special attention to lighting like this director did, they are doing a good job.”
  • “That movie was great! I can’t believe how well the director focused on light!”
More conservative grammarians may insist that these are the only ways to refer to a single person of unspecified gender. Language is always changing, however, and today English is slowly being reclaimed by some groups it has historically been used to subjugate, including women and individuals who do not conform to the gender binary (see Subsection 6.3.1). These shifts explain why it is now inappropriate to use “he” as the default pronoun and why “they” is becoming increasingly accepted as a gender–neutral, third–person singular pronoun (see Subsection 6.3.2).

Subsubsection Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns do not refer to any particular person or thing, and it is not always obvious whether they are singular or plural, which can make subject-verb agreement a bit tricky.Many indefinite pronouns (e.g., anyone, everyone, everybody, someone, no one, nobody) are singular and should be accompanied by a singular verb (-s ending or “is”/“has”).

Example 7.2.7. Anyone and Everyone as Pronouns: Luau.

“Is anyone going to Luau this year? I’ve heard everyone always has a great time.”

Example 7.2.8. Someone as a Pronouns: Rollerblading.

“Someone is rollerblading around campus.”

Example 7.2.9. Nobody as a Pronoun: Math Question.

“Nobody knows the answer to the math question.”
“Each” is a singular pronoun and requires a singular verb. Therefore, even if the subject of the sentence is plural, “each” refers to every single member of that group and should be treated as a singular pronoun.

Example 7.2.10. Each as a Pronoun: Research Students.

“Each of the research students has access to the lab.”

Example 7.2.11. Each as a Pronoun: Experience the university.

“Each and every one of you is in for a new experience here at the university.”

Example 7.2.12. Each as a Pronoun: Coffee Flavors.

“Each of the coffee flavors at the coffee shop sounds enticing.”
“All,” “some,” and “none” can be either singular or plural depending on the subject. “All” and “some” are singular or plural depending on the plurality of the subject and therefore require an accompanying verb.

Example 7.2.13. All as a Pronoun: Grass is Greener.

“All of the grass on campus is green.”

Example 7.2.14. All as a Pronoun: Class Outside.

“Some of the professors are holding class outside because it is so sunny.”
“None” can be either plural or singular depending on how many of some item it is referring to. For instance, if “none” is referring to a single item (“not one of these things”), a singular verb is required. However, if it is being applied to several items (“not any of these things”), a plural verb should be used.

Example 7.2.15. None as a Pronoun: Rat Lab.

“So far, none of the rats in the psychology rat lab have escaped.” (if you are talking about many rats that have not escaped)

Example 7.2.16. None as a Pronoun: Return of Rat Lab.

“So far, none of the rats in the psychology rat lab has escaped.” (if you are talking about one rat that has not escaped among many rats)

Example 7.2.17. None as a Pronoun: O-No-Chem.

“None of the O-chem students are sleeping the night before their final.”

Subsubsection -S Endings

In Standard American English, third-person singular subjects (e.g., she, he, it, proper pronoun) require an “s” at the end of their accompanying present-tense verb. Plural subjects (e.g., they, people), however, do not require an “s.” Even though “they” may refer to a single individual (see They as a Singular Pronoun), it still technically adheres to the rules of plurality. Therefore, even when describing a single person, you would pluralize the accompanying verb (“they sit” rather than “they sits”).

Example 7.2.18. Agreement with “-S” Endings.

  • “It sits, she sits, he sits, they sit. . .”
  • “The first-year writing student studies in the library.”
  • “The ballet students dance across the stage.”
  • “I’m going to the bakery with my friend, Keegan. They promise to split a cookie with me.”

Subsubsection Is/Are

Third-person singular subjects require the present-tense verb “is,” while plural subjects require the present-tense verb “are.”
As above, even though “they” may refer to a single individual (see They As a Singular Pronoun), it still technically adheres to the rules of plurality. Therefore, even when describing a single person, you would pluralize the accompanying verb (“they are” rather than “they is”).

Example 7.2.19. Agreement with “Is/Are”.

  • “It is, she is, he is, they are. . .”
  • “The old part of town is a cool place to explore.”
  • “The students are going to the open-mic night in the piano lounge.”
  • “The resident is running for Residence Hall Association president of their hall; they are a strong candidate for the position.”

Subsubsection Either/Or, Neither/Nor

If “either” and “neither” are being used to differentiate a singular item or a singular item among several, they are singular pronouns and need a singular verb.

Example 7.2.20. Agreement (Singular) with “Either/Or” and “Neither/Nor”.

  • “Would you prefer a drip coffee or caffeinated tea?” “Either is fine with me.”
  • “Neither of the two coffee machines in the coffee shop is working.”
If “either” and “neither” are being used in interrogative statements, they can use a plural verb.

Example 7.2.21. Agreement (Plural) with “Either/Or” and “Neither/Nor”.

  • “Are either of you going to the women’s lacrosse game?”
  • “Have neither of my books arrived from the interlibrary loan, yet?”
If “either” and “neither” are referring to either one item or another item (two items separated by the conjunction “or” or “nor”), the verb is determined by the plurality of the item that lies closest to it. A good rule of thumb is to look at the plurality of the subject/noun closest to the verb and change the verb accordingly. However, even if a sentence is grammatically correct, you may have to fiddle with the order of the items in order to make the sentence sound more clear.

Example 7.2.22. Making a Gramatically Correct Sentence Clearer.

Look at this sentence:
Neither my teammates nor my coach was expecting it to rain during practice.
While grammatically correct, this sentence still sounds slightly awkward. Consider a possible revision of the item order:
Neither my coach nor my teammates were expecting it to rain during practice.
Sounds much better, doesn’t it?

Example 7.2.23. More Agreement with “Either/Or” and “Neither/Nor”.

  • “Either the home team or their rival is going to win the Ultimate frisbee championship this year.”
  • “Neither the tables nor the couches in the coffee shop are open.”

Subsubsection Of

When using a phrase beginning with “of” to modify a subject, the subject always comes before the phrase. Therefore, the verb should agree with the subject before the word “of.”

Example 7.2.24. Agreement with “Of”.

  • “The murder of crows targets the dropped french fry.”
  • “The Office of Admission is a great place to work if you’d like to be a campus visit guide.”

Subsubsection And/Or

When using “and” in a sentence to combine two or more subjects, use a plural verb. When using “or” in a sentence to differentiate between two or more subjects, the verb should agree with the plurality of whatever subject is closest to it.

Example 7.2.25. Agreement with “And/Or”.

  • “Mango, pineapple, and strawberry are the best flavors of smoothie.”
  • “My sister or my brothers are coming to visit me on campus.”
  • “My brothers or my sister is coming to visit me on campus.”

Subsubsection Confusing Modifiers

Sometimes the subject and verb are separated by modifying phrases and adjectives that describe the subject. While modifiers are useful for adding specificity to sentences, they can be confusing when you are trying to make your subject and verb agree. If you spot a modifier, skip over it and make your verb singular or plural based on the subject. In the following examples, subjects are underlined and verbs are italicized.
  • The student body president, along with the first-year students, is attending Convocation.”
  • “The first-year resident, who was feeling FOMO and who chose to hang out with friends and watch movies instead of study for his test, now regrets the decision after seeing his test score.”
  • the coffee shop (and its baristas) provides a great space to study and socialize.”

Warning 7.2.26. Singulars and Plurals.

There are some nouns that are singular but sound plural and that require plural verbs (pants, glasses, trousers), and then there are other words that are singular but sound plural and that require singular verbs (news, measles, lens).

Subsubsection Collective Nouns

There are some subjects that may be singular or plural depending on how you use them.
In order to determine whether to use a singular or a plural verb, ask yourself: Are the people in the group acting as a single unit, or is each individual in the group acting individually? If the group is acting as a single unit, use singular. If each individual in the group is acting individually, use plural. (To help with the plural instances, try seeing if it would make sense to write “ members,” like “jury members” or “council members.”)
So with the collective noun “class” you could say, “The class is silent during the test.” In this sentence, you’re talking about the room of people as one and saying that as one the room is silent. You can also correctly say “After tests, the class buy their celebratory smoothies at the coffee shop.” In this case, you’re emphasizing the individual action of each member of the group.
A list of some collective nouns and example uses may be found below.

Example 7.2.27. Sample Sentences with Collective Nouns.

“The jury was late to the trial.”
“The jury appear to be bored or sleeping during the trial; they keep yawning and nodding off.”
“The university women’s soccer team has had a very successful season.”
“This year, the women’s soccer team are going home to visit their families after their NCAA win.”
“The army trains thoroughly.”
“The army return home after the war.”
“The council votes in favor of the bill.”
“The council disagree about which way to vote.”
“My family is the best.”
“My family are funny.”
“The group always leaves the room a mess.”
“The group sing, dance, and act.”
“The audience applauds.”
“The audience were hooting and hollering.”
“The Board of Trustees is willing to hear students about fossil fuel divestment.”
“The Board of Trustees have different opinions about divestment.”
“And the crowd goes wild!”
“The crowd are running, jumping, and yelling.”

Subsubsection Fractional Expressions

A fractional expression begins with a word like “half,” “part,” “some,” “a majority,” “all,” “any,” “more,” or “most,” followed by “of” and then a noun.
Generally, fractional expressions can agree with either plural or singular verbs. Pick the type of verb based on the meaning and context of the fractional expression.

Example 7.2.28. Fractional Expressions with Plural Agreement.

  • “Some of us are ready to eat.”
  • “The majority of the university baseball fans buy student hats at the bookstore.”
  • “All students on campus are really cool.”

Example 7.2.29. Fractional Expressions with Singular Agreement.

  • “Part of the problem is that it’s too rainy to do homework outside today.”
  • “Some variation in sandwich preferences is okay (as long as you agree that toasting is the way to go).”
  • “Most of my homework is done. . .”

Note 7.2.30.

The exception to this flexibility is that the fractional expression “more than one” is always singular, so you would say, “More than one cookie is what I need right now,” not “More than one cookie are what I need right now.”