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Making verbs agree with singular and plural subjects

May 6th 2009 16:29
I mentioned in a previous post, "Can good writers be bad spellers?" that I have a damnable time with using the right verb in sentences where subjects are connected by "or". This is known as subject/verb agreement; that is, when there is a singular subject, use a singular verb, and when there are plural subjects, use a plural verb:

That gum you like is coming back in style. (singular)

Some of your friends are here. (plural)

I've provided an overview of the main subject/verb agreement rules and examples of when subject/verb agreement can get tricky:

Sentences with one subject

Subject/verb agreement is pretty straightforward in cases where there is just one subject. In the following sentences, "criterion" and "criteria" are the respective subjects.

The judges' main criterion in the dance contest is footwork.

Criterion is singular, referring to footwork, so use is.

The judges' main criteria in the dance contest are footwork, style, and rhythm.

Criteria is plural, referring to three things (footwork, style, rhythm), so use are.

Sentences with multiple subjects

Subjects connected by "and" are considered plural:

My husband and I are going on vacation.

However, note what happens when a single subject is followed by a parenthetical phrase:

I, as well as my husband, am going to pack lightly.

Even though I mention "my husband", "I" is still a singular subject.

Sentences with subjects connected by "or"/"nor"

When subjects are connected by "or" or "nor', use a singular verb. Think about it logically: an either/or statement is really specifying a choice between single subjects, and does not include all of them. (And a neither/nor statement includes none of them.)

Either she or he has it.

In this case, the correct verb is has, not have. Same with the sentence if it were a neither/nor statement:

Neither she nor he has it.

But here's the rub: what about sentences where the subjects are mixed, singular and plural? In these sentences, the verb should agree with the subject closest to it.

Either the cookies or the cake is nice for dessert.

"Cake" is singular, so use is.

Neither the cake nor the cookies are nice for dessert.

"Cookies" is plural, so use are.

Singular or plural?

Are these words singular or plural? Here are sentences that include words that may befuddle some writers:

Microsoft is the biggest shareholder in this project. (singular)

Coldplay is the most overrated band EVER. (singular)

Musical group names are weird though, because the following statement, where the band name is a plural, is considered correct:

The White Stripes are my favourite band.

The All-Blacks are doing well this season. (plural, because even though the team is a collective, every team member must do something to "do well this season")

The media are the message. (plural, but see Note)
The medium is the message. (singular)

Note: This is up to debate, but I tend to use "media" in the sense of magazines, internet, TV, radio, etc., as a plural rather than a singular mass noun, i.e., "The media are all over the royal wedding." Usage of "media" as singular is extremely common, however.

The data is/are correct. (plural and singular)

I don't think I've ever read "datum" in a sentence except to say that it is the singular of "data". Words like this, i.e., Latin forms of singular/plural, will likely be obselete in a generation.

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Comment by Anonymous

September 25th 2010 19:35
This website is stupid!!! Nobody should go on it!

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