Let’s agree to agree

AgreementHere’s a basic test: which sentences below are correct and which incorrect?

  • They is red.
  • You are happy.
  • I were ready on time. (notwithstanding certain dialects in parts of England)

You would easily have picked only the second one as being correct, because people know that a verb has to agree with its subject, even if they don’t know the terminology for this. The problem with the other two sentences is that the number of the subject does not agree with the number of the verb. In the first sentence, the subject is plural ‘they’, which requires the plural verb ‘are’. The third sentence has singular subject ‘I’, but an incorrect plural verb ‘were’. This is fundamental grammar that people know intuitively about their first language.

No problem, right? Not so fast. These examples are easy, but it rapidly gets complicated; I see errors of subject–verb agreement all the time.

Separating subject and verb

The problem is often that the subject is separated from the verb by a whole swag of extra information. This makes the subject phrase very long, and writers find it difficult to keep the mental connection between the subject and its verb. Here’s another basic sentence:

  • ‘The artist cleans the brushes’.

The subject (The artist) appears exactly before the verb ‘cleans’, as is usual in the basic grammatical structure of English. And now with extra information:

  • ‘The artist wearing the spattered smock with the yellow sunflowers cleans the brushes.’

Now the verb ‘cleans’ is coming right next to a plural noun ‘sunflowers’, which can tempt writers to use a plural verb ‘clean’. (Fowler’s Modern English Usage calls this ‘attraction’ or ‘proximity’.) However, ‘sunflowers’ is not the subject of the sentence and does not govern the verb. The subject is still ‘The artist’, which requires the singular verb ‘cleans’.

Compound subjects

Another problem happens with compound subjects, as in this example:

  • *‘Improvement and expansion has changed the methods used in each section of the department.’

There are two nouns here, making this a compound subject that requires a plural, not a singular, verb. This should read ‘Improvement and expansion have changed …’

One exception to this happens when the two items are considered to be a single unit, so they take a singular verb.

  • ‘Fish and chips is my favourite meal’.

Another exception is when the second noun is connected to the first by ‘with’, ‘as well as’, ‘in addition to’, ‘except’, ‘together with’, ‘no less than’, ‘or’ or ‘nor’:

  • ‘Improvement, as well as expansion, has changed the methods used in each section of the department.’
  • ‘Each dot or dash is required to be in red.’

When writers combine these two techniques – adding extra information to the subject and using compound subjects – it can get even more confusing.

  • *‘Frequent assessment of the worth of the paintings and ongoing monitoring of surveillance and protection systems in the building is important to maintain.’

Now we have a compound subject (assessment and monitoring), each with additional information (‘of the worth of the paintings’ and ‘of surveillance and protection systems in the building’) and the last noun before the singular verb is the singular ‘building’. But here the verb should be the plural ‘are’.

Other specific examples of subject–verb agreement are as follows:

  • Use a plural verb in a sentence such as ‘One of the artists who have exhibited in the city.’ (note: an exception here is when you want to draw attention to the uniqueness of the ‘one’ element: ‘One of the best artists who has exhibited in the city.’)
  • An indefinite expression such as ‘A range of options were available’ takes a plural verb, but when the definite form is used, make it singular: ‘The range of options is limited.’
  • Use a singular verb after ‘each’, ‘either’, ‘everyone’, ‘everybody’, ‘neither’, ‘nobody’, ‘someone’:
    • ‘Both artists work prolifically, but neither is rich.’
  • With ‘none’, use a singular verb if ‘none’ means ‘not one’, but a plural verb if it means more than one:
    • ‘None of the artists is rich.’
    • ‘None are so beautiful as those with confidence.’
  • Collective nouns: Some nouns that look plural function as singular items: ‘Politics is not a game.’ (Winston Churchill); equally, some nouns that look singular take plural verbs: ‘The police were notified.’ Note there is some geographical variation here between British and American use.

The topic of agreement takes up more than two pages in Fowler’s, which means there are basic rules with many different instances of applying them, exceptions to these rules, geographic variation of these rules, and – as if that weren’t enough – a little bit of stylistic interpretation thrown in, based on the sense rather than the grammatical form of the sentence. Remember also that subject–verb agreement is one of those areas where conversational habits are very different from formal writing habits. Many people say ‘There’s two games on this weekend’, but you don’t want to write ‘There’s two ways we can go forward’ in a report to a client.

                                                                                                                                                          

Sources

Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Strunk W Jr and White EB. 2000. The Elements of Style. 4th Edition. Longman. New York.
And the image: http://www.etsy.com/listing/90585987/victorian-brooch-of-women-shaking-hands.
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