Grammar: Subject-Verb Agreement

 

The most common errors with subject-verb agreement are to do with number. On most occasions, we have no difficulty 

      Imran was cycling along the path when he discovered the body.

Here, the singular subject Imran agrees with the singular auxiliary verb was and the singular pronoun he. Similarly 

      Imran and Claire were cycling along the path when they discovered the
      body.

This time, the plural subject Imran and Claire agrees with the plural auxiliary verb were and the plural pronoun theyBut the rules of agreement
are not always this straightforward –

      The book is one of those rare novels that owes (owe?) its (their?)
      popularity more to word-of-mouth recommendation than to the
      publisher’s advertising.

      Bread and butter are (is?) included in the price.

      If I was (were?) in your shoes, I’d be more careful.

Each of these examples, in which the bracketed alternative is correct, illustrates a different principle of agreement. The first concerns the error
called attraction; the second, the disparity between grammatical agreement and notional agreement; and the 
third, the change of mood from
indicative to subjunctive.

 

Page contents:

attraction
notional agreement
   general
   composite subjects
   plural words construed as singular
   collective nouns
   nouns expressing quantities
   either, neither, none
   their, them, themselves
the subjunctive mood

 

Attraction

We have no difficulty recognising the subject noun of a sentence when there is only one noun, but when additional nouns appear before the verb,
we can make the error of attraction; instead of agreeing with the subject noun, the verbs and pronouns are 
‘attracted’ to an impostor –

      The cost of groceries vary widely from one supermarket to another.

The subject of this sentence is the noun phrase the cost of the groceries, but instead of agreeing with the principal noun cost, the verb vary is
attracted to groceries. Corrected –

      The cost of groceries varies widely from one supermarket to another.

Attraction is apt to occur in several kinds of sentence –

      When Paul returned to the classroom from lunch, his backpack, along
      with his 
mobile phone and calculator, were gone. (Incorrect)

Sentences with phrases such as along with, as well as, in addition to, not to mention, together with and so forth, all introduce additional nouns that
can obscure the true subject of the relevant clause or sentence. The rule with these constructions is that the verbs and 
pronouns agree with the first
noun –

      When Paul returned to the classroom from lunch, his backpack, along
      with his mobile phone and calculator, was gone.

No matter how great the number of nouns, we cannot go wrong if we follow the rule –

      When he picked himself up, his new jacket with the suede collar and
      expensive lining – not to mention his shirt and trousers – was covered
      in mud.

      Britain, as well as Germany, France and the United States (although
      notably not Russia, which predictably chose to stand by its historical
      allegiance to the Serbs), indicated that it was prepared to use military
      force.

Sentences with one of, on the other hand, take the opposite rule: the verbs and pronouns agree with the second, plural noun –

      The book is one of those rare novels that owe their popularity more to
      word-of-mouth recommendation than to the publisher’s advertising.

This rule also applies when of is preceded by any quantitative expression. For example, instead of one of, we might have half oftwo-thirds of or 
twenty per cent of. Such expressions are not construed as subjects and do not, therefore, affect the verbs and 
pronouns –

      Forty per cent of his investments were lost in the stock market crash.

      Two-thirds of the pitch was waterlogged following the storm.

      (See also nouns expressing quantities below.)

Confusion can also arise in sentences with a positive and a negative subject: It was not A, but B…; or It was B, rather than A… In such cases, the 
verbs and pronouns agree with the positive subject, irrespective of order –

      It is the leader’s weak personality, not his actual policies, that has turned
      the electorate against him.

      It is not the leader’s actual policies but his weak personality that has
      turned the electorate against him.

Finally, attraction can occur where a subject and subject complement differ in number, the one singular and the other plural –

      The meal was generally good. The only disappointment were (was?) the
      roast potatoes.

In the second sentence, the subject (the only disappointment) is singular, while the subject complement (the roast potatoes) is plural. As always,
however, the verb must agree with the subject, in this case whichever comes first –

      The only disappointment was the roast potatoes.

      The roast potatoes were the only disappointment.

      The problem is the tyres.

      The tyres are the problem.

 

Notional Agreement

General

So far, we have looked only at grammatical agreement, that is, the correct use of verbs and pronouns with the grammatical form of subject nouns 
and pronouns. But form is not necessarily the same thing as meaning. Nouns might be singular in form but plural in meaning (e.g. committee) or 
plural in form but singular in meaning (e.g. gin and tonic). In such cases, the verbs and pronouns can sometimes agree with the interpretation (or 
notion) of the subject rather than its form.

For example, the nouns Imran and Claire were earlier cited as a plural subject –

      Imran and Claire were cycling along the path when they discovered the
      body.

Imran and Claire cannot be construed in the singular; we cannot, that is, say Imran and Claire was cycling along the path. But if the nouns were Tom 
and Jerry, there would be circumstances in which we could use the singular –

      Tom and Jerry were cycling along the path. (Grammatical agreement)

      Tom and Jerry is a popular children’s cartoon programme. (Notional
      agreement)

So while Tom and Jerry are grammatically plural, they can be notionally singular.

(See also composite subjects below.)

In the same way, notional agreement can turn singulars into plurals –

      His family is renowned for its rugby players. (Grammatical agreement;
      family is singular in form.)

      All her family were there to comfort her. (Notional agreement; family is
      plural in meaning.)

(See also collective nouns below.)

Note that grammatical and notional agreement can sometimes give different meanings to sentences that otherwise comprise the same words –

      Sitting and reading in the garden give me great pleasure. (Grammatical
      agreement; the activities give pleasure separately.)

      Sitting and reading in the garden gives me great pleasure. (Notional
      agreement; the activities give pleasure in combination.) 

Although sometimes controversial, notional agreement is in reputable use in the following cases.


Composite subjects

Two nouns linked by and usually form a plural subject, so that the verbs and pronouns must also be plural –

      Bolivia and Paraguay are the only two landlocked countries in South
      America.
(Grammatical agreement)

      Vanessa and Edward were the only students in the class over eighteen.
     (Grammatical agreement)

But some nouns linked by and have become so strongly connected that they form a composite subject (or double subject), expressing one idea
rather than two. In such cases, we usually choose notional rather than grammatical agreement by using 
singular verbs and pronouns –

      Washing-and-drying with our new automatic takes only half the time it
      used to.

      Their engagement-and-marriage was the cause of much attention in the
      popular press.

      She knew he meant well, but his constant coming and going was beginning
      to irritate her.

      The looting was a reminder of how appallingly people can behave when law
      and order breaks down.

      The inspectors’ report found that health and safety was not considered a
      high enough priority by the company.

      Bread and butter is included in the price.

      Gin and tonic is my favourite tipple.

As can be seen, composite subjects not in common use are hyphenated for greater clarity. (See the hyphen.)

In other circumstances, of course, we use grammatical agreement –

      Bread and butter are always the first two items on my shopping list.

      When we think of it, health and safety are two rather different concepts.


Plural words construed as singular

Academic subjects, diseases and branches of science are grammatically plural but notionally singular –

      Physics was my favourite subject in school.

      Politics is not a compulsory curriculum subject.

      International relations is an optional unit on the course.

      Measles is easily prevented today.

But plurals are often required when such words are used generally rather than as subjects of study –

      His politics are far too extreme for me.

      International relations were greatly improved by the election of the new
      government.


Collective nouns

These are nouns that denote a collection of individuals such as class, committee, crowd, family, flock, government, group, herdpack and staff
and they are grammatically construed in the singular (e.g. the government is, not the government are). But the use of plural verbs and pronouns is 
usually permissible when those comprising the group are notionally understood as separate components rather than as an undifferentiated whole –

      The committee concluded its business at 3.30 p.m. (Grammatical agreement;
      committee construed as a unit or a whole.)

      The committee put their hands together and applauded the outgoing
      chairman. 
(Notional agreement; the committee construed as a number of
      individuals.)

      The staff is highly skilled and self-motivating. (Grammatical agreement; staff
      construed as a unit.)

      The staff are highly skilled and self-motivating. (Notional agreement; staff
      construed as individuals.)

If we disapprove of the use of plurals, however, we can avoid making the collective noun the sole subject of the sentence –

      Members of the committee put their hands together.

      The members of staff are highly skilled.

But whichever we choose, singular or plural, consistency is advisable in the same sentence –

      The crowd was growing angrier by the moment until they eventually began
      to throw stones.
(Inconsistent use of grammatical and notional agreement)


Nouns expressing quantities

Nouns expressing quantities, such as number, majority, minority and total are construed grammatically (i.e. in the singular) when preceded by the
definite article (the) –

      The number of people who attended the meeting was quite small. 
      (Grammatical agreement; the number was small, not the people.)

But they are usually construed notionally (in the plural) when preceded by the indefinite article (a or an) –

      A number of people were growing angry. (Notional agreement; the people
      were growing angry, not the number.)

In the same way –

      The majority was in favour of the motion. (Grammatical agreement)

      A minority were against. (Notional agreement)

      The total number of votes cast was twenty-seven. (Grammatical agreement)

      A total of twenty-seven votes were cast. (Notional agreement)1

Agreement with the word pair is determined by the item or items it represents. If the item comprises two inseparable parts (binocularsjeans
pliersscissors, spectacles, etc.), then the verbs agree with the singular form –

      A pair of pliers is needed for the job. (Grammatical agreement)

      A pair of spectacles was found on the train. (Grammatical agreement)

If, on the other hands, the pair comprises two discrete items (bookends, curtains, earrings, shoes, socks, twins, etc.), agreement can be either 
singular or plural –

      A pair of twins was born to Ms Jones. (Grammatical agreement; pair
      construed as a unit)

      A pair of twins were born to Ms Jones. (Notional agreement; pair
      construed as individuals)

      The pair of them are doing well. (Notional agreement)

      A good pair of shoes is hard to find nowadays. (Grammatical agreement)

      A good pair of shoes are hard to find nowadays. (Notional agreement)

But note that any succeeding verbs and pronouns would normally agree with the second noun rather than pair

      A good pair of shoes is hard to find nowadays, but I found these in High
      Street last Saturday – and they weren’t that expensive.

Couple and trio may also take either grammatical or notional agreement, depending once again on whether the words are construed as units or as
two or three independent components –

      A couple of minutes is all it takes. (Grammatical agreement)

      A couple were kissing on the park bench. (Notional agreement)

      The trio is currently touring Europe. (Grammatical agreement)

      The trio are playing well tonight. (Notional agreement)

Grammatical or notional agreement is also optional when cardinal numbers are used to express measurement –

      Two minutes is all I need. (Notional agreement)

      Two minutes are all I need. (Grammatical agreement)

      Is three kilos enough? (Notional agreement)

      Are three kilos enough? (Grammatical agreement)

Expressions of the kind one in five, one in ten and so forth can also take either grammatical or notional agreement –

      ‘Just one in five Britons eats the recommended five portions of fruit 
      and vegetables a day.’
(Grammatical agreement) BBC News2

      ‘Just one in five get five a day. (Notional agreement) Mail Online3 

The case for grammatical agreement is clear enough. The subject one takes singular verbs: one gets, one eats. If we delete what comes between
the subject and verb, therefore, we get 

      Just one eats the recommended five portions.

      Just one gets 'five a day'.

The case for notional agreement rests on the fact that both statements are obviously referring to multiple groups of five. Given a total of 60 million
Britons, then, the number of people eating their five a day is 12 million, and 12 million people
eat and getnot eats and gets 

      Just one in five eat...

      Just one in five get...


either, neither, none

The pronouns either and neither take singular verbs with singular subjects  

      In their interminable political arguments, neither Sally nor David is 
      prepared to back down. When either of them makes a point, the other
      immediately retaliates

and plural verbs with plural subjects – 

      Neither the Scots nor the Welsh were particularly impressive in the first
      half. 

When the two subjects differ in number, one singular and the other plural, the verb agrees with the nearer subject –

      Neither the lecturer nor the students understand the new software.

      Neither the students nor the lecturer understands the new software.

But for ease of reading, it is generally advisable to place the plural subject closer to the verb (as in the first example).

With the pronoun none, the picture is a little more complicated. The widely held view that none must always be used with singular verbs is incorrect.
The word can mean both 'not one' and 'not any', so that it may take either singular or plural verbs grammatically
 

      None (not one) of the students is prepared to act as spokesperson for the class. 
      (Grammatical agreement)

      Janet searched the cupboard for tea bags but there were none (not any) there. 
      (Grammatical agreement)

 

their, them, themselves

These are unequivocally plural pronouns and a notional case cannot be made for their use with singular nouns and pronouns. All the following 
examples are ungrammatical –

      Every student in the class thought their marks were fair.

      The caller withheld their number.

      Anyone who knew the perilous terrain would not go walking there on
      their own.

      If someone is in trouble, the Samaritans are always prepared to help
      them.

      With so many guests, we decided it would be cheaper to provide a
      buffet where everyone served themselves.

But this is not to say that such expressions should necessarily be avoided; correct grammar need not be the only criterion to consider. As
explained in Appendix II, the absence of a common-gender, third-person singular pronoun 
makes the achievement of sex equality sometimes
very difficult for writers and 
speakers. In the circumstances, then, the ungrammatical their might be preferable to grammatically correct but
tiresome repetitions of 
he or she, his or her and so forth.4

 

The Subjunctive Mood

English has four moods –

       the indicative mood for statements of fact: John enjoys clay shooting.

      •  the imperative mood for commands: Watch where you’re pointing that gun, John!

      •  the interrogative mood for questions: How often do go clay shooting, John?

      •  the subjunctive mood for hypothetical and counterfactual statements such as wishes,
           conditions, requests, requirements and suggestions:
 It is advisable that John wear ear
           protectors when clay shooting
.

The most significant feature of the subjunctive mood is the identical verb form for all persons. Note, for example, that the subject and verb in the last
of the above sentences are John wear, not John wears. The same verb form is used no matter who is performing the action: Iyouhe, sheJack
Jillthe dog, we or they.

The subjunctive mood is most commonly encountered in the following three contexts.

1. Statements expressing wishes

These always take were –

      I wish I were back in that Greek taverna.

      I’ll bet he wishes he were here with us now.

      I wish Julia weren’t so argumentative.

      I wish it were Friday.

      I wish our garden were bigger.


2. Conditional statements

These often take the form of If…, then…, although these words do not actually have to appear in order to express conditionality. Once again, the
past tense were is used with all nouns and pronouns –

      If I were in your shoes, (then) I’d be more careful.

      Were I in your shoes, I’d be more careful.

      If he were my dog, I’d have trained him properly.

      If only it were that simple.

      I’d have retired years ago were it not for the kids’ tuition fees.


3. Requests, requirements and suggestions

These are often expressed with that clauses, although the conjunction need only be implied. The rule here is that all nouns and pronouns take 
the bare infinitive (the uninflected verb form without to before it, such as run, laugh, contemplate and work

      It’s essential (that) she be consulted about this.

      I suggest he think things over before deciding.

      The doctor recommended Dad remain in hospital another week.

      It’s crucial that Mary find a solicitor as soon as possible.

      It was required that we be at the airport two hours before take-off.

      It’s important that the vehicle be regularly serviced.

It will have been noticed that many of the subjunctive examples sound rather formal and dated. We are far more likely to express ourselves today 
in the indicative mood than in the subjunctive –

      I wish Julia wouldn’t be so argumentative. (Indicative)

rather than –

      I wish Julia weren’t so argumentative. (Subjunctive)

      I’d have retired years ago if it hadn’t been for the kids’ tuition fees. (Indicative)

rather than –

      I’d have retired years ago were it not for the kids’ tuition fees. (Subjunctive)

It has even be suggested that we abandon the subjunctive mood altogether. But in formally written English, such as the minutes of meetings, the
subjunctive mood is perfectly at home –

      Ms Jenkins proposed that the item be postponed until the next meeting. (Subjunctive)

rather than –

      Ms Jenkins proposed that the item should be postponed until the next meeting. (Indicative)

 

____________

1 Some writers, however, keep strictly to grammatical agreement: Despite sharply rising fees, a record number of students is going to independent
   schools...
 (John Clare, The Daily Telegraph, 24 April 2004).
2 BBC News online, 14 May 2012. Accessed 30.05.12.
3 Mail Online, 14 May 2012. Accessed 30.05.12.
4 Other examples where correct grammar is sometimes sacrificed for allegedly higher purposes are the substitution of object for subject pronouns (e.g.
   me for I and who for whom), the use of pausing commas in place of isolating commas and the use of the apostrophe to indicate plurals. The question
   is whether the individual writer or speaker is comfortable with the solecism.