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Some Problems of Subject-Verb Agreement

When making a verb agree with its subject, what is important is whether the subject is grammatically singular or plural, not how many people or things the subject refers to.

  • All our friends have arrived early. (‘All our friends’ is plural.)
  • Everyone has arrived early. (‘Everyone’ is a singular pronoun even though it refers to more than one person.)
  • My many fans know how talented I am. (‘My many fans’ is plural.)
  • Everybody knows how talented I am. (‘Everybody’ is a singular pronoun even though it refers to more than one person.)
  • All our students spend an hour a day in the library. (plural subject)
  • Every student spends an hour a day in the library. (singular subject)

Sometimes it is not the immediate subject, or what seems to be the subject, of the verb that determines whether the verb must be singular or plural, but some other word or phrase in the sentence.

For a verb in a relative clause, it is the antecedent that makes the verb singular or plural:

  • The boy who was playing outside is my son.
  • The boys who were playing outside are my sons.
  • Where is the book that was here on the table?
  • Where are the books that were here on the table?

In noun clauses beginning with what, it is again what follows the verb that determines whether the verb is singular or plural:

  • What was once a thriving village is now a cluster of ruins.
  • What were once houses and shops are now just heaps of stones and wood.

Care must be taken with phrases consisting of two or more nouns linked by and. If the nouns are considered as separate things, then the phrase is plural:

  • Tea and coffee are popular drinks.
  • Carrots and potatoes are vegetables.

But if the nouns linked by and are considered to be one single thing, then the phrase is singular and the verb must be singular:

  • Cin and tonic is a popular drink.
  • Mince and potatoes is my favourite meal.

Sometimes both singular and plural verbs are considered correct:

  • Two and two make (or makes) four.

When the subject of a sentence refers to a quantity of something, it should be followed by a singular verb.

When the subject refers to a number of separate items, it should be followed by a plural verb.

  • The bread is mouldy. And the apples are mouldy too.
  • Some money has been stolen. And some ornaments have been stolen as well.
  • Fortunately, no damage has been done and no losses have been incurred.

Plural nouns denoting quantities or amounts are, however, usually treated as singular.

  • Three pounds of potatoes is far too much for one person.
  • Sixty thousand dollars seems an awful lot of money to pay for a painting.
  • Two inches is about the same as five centimetres. Twenty-five miles is more than I could walk in one day.
  • Ten weeks is a long time to wait for a reply.
  • Five days seems a very long time to wait when you are only four years old.

Although it looks as if it ought to be singular, a number of is in fact treated as plural and should be followed by a plural verb:

  • number of prisoners have already escaped.
  • A large number of passengers were injured when the two trains collided.

Similarly, when a lot of and the rest of are followed by a plural noun or pronoun, they are also followed by a plural verb:

  • A lot of strange things have happened around here lately.
  • A lot of them are not quite sure why they’re here.
  • The rest of us have to stay here.
  • The rest of the passengers were rescued by the fire brigade.

But when a lot of and the rest of are followed by a singular noun or pronoun, the verb is in the singular.

  • lot of the work has already been done.
  • The rest of it has to be finished by tomorrow.

Again, with lots, heaps, tons, etc, it is the following noun that determines whether the verb must be singular or plural:

  • Lots of rubbish was left behind by the workmen.
  • Lots of people were queuing outside the shop.
  • Heaps of food has been wasted.
  • Heaps of people have read her books.

Majority and minority, when followed by plural nouns, are also followed by plural verbs:

  • The majority of people with this surname are Scottish.
  • Only a small minority of disputes are resolved without arbitration.

Care must be taken with nouns that are plural in form but which are usually treated as singular.

  • I think maths is really boring.
  • Billiards is very similar to snooker.
  • Measles was a common childhood disease when I was young.

Words in this category are nouns referring to:

  • subjects of study, such as economics, electronics, ethics, linguistics, mechanics, phonetics, physics, politics and semantics;
  • activities, such as aerobics, athletics and gymnastics;
  • games, such as charades, darts, dominoes, musical chairs, noughts and crosses, quoits, rounders and snakes and ladders;
  • diseases, such as mumps, rabies, rickets and shingles.

Some of the words in (subjects of study) group can also be used in the plural when they are not referring to a subject of study:

  • Politics is a fascinating subject. (= subject of study)
  • Her politics are quite beyond me. (= political beliefs)
  • Mechanics is one of the subjects I studied at university. (= subject of study)
  • The mechanics of this process are quite complex. (= mechanical operations)
  • Mathematics is her favourite subject. (= subject of study)
  • The mathematics are clear: the cost of a refill can be as low as a tenth of the cost of a new cartridge. (= mathematical facts)
  • I think your mathematics is/are wrong. (= mathematical calculations)

There are some nouns in English that appear to be singular but which are in fact plural and must be followed by a plural verb. Common examples are cattle, clergy, folk, people, police and youth.

  • The cattle were in the barn.
  • The clergy are not respected today like they once were.
  • Folk do silly things like that, don’t they?
  • People are silly, aren’t they?
  • The police have been informed of the break-in.
  • The youth of today are less interested in playing sport than we were at their age.

Collective nouns are nouns that denote groups of people or animals, such as aristocracy, army, audience, class, club, committee, family, flock, government, group, herd, Jury, public, staff, team, etc.

Nouns like these can be thought of as referring either to one single body or to a number of individuals. When such nouns are felt to be referring to single entities rather than numbers of separate individuals, they are usually treated as singular nouns and followed by singular verbs:

  • The audience was larger than I had expected.
  • The committee has decided not to accept your resignation.
  • Our class has been chosen to represent the school.
  • The public is all too easily fooled.
  • The jury finds the defendant not guilty.
  • The government has no right to act without consulting parliament.

However, when they are thought of as referring to a number of individuals, they are, in British English, treated as plural nouns and followed by a plural verb:

  • The audience were obviously enjoying the performance.
  • The committee have decided not to accept your resignation.
  • Our class have all had flu.
  • The general public know very little about the causes of inflation.
  • He could see that the flock were getting restless.

In American English, it is more usual to treat collective nouns as singular nouns than as plural nouns.

Once a choice has been made as to whether to treat a collective noun as singular or plural, it may be necessary to make the same choice with regard to other words in the sentence:

  • The committee has [singular] decided that it does not want to accept your resignation.
  • The committee have [plural] decided that they do not want to accept your resignation.

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