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Solving Two Problems: Subject/Verb Agreement and Compound Subjects
Writing is an art, not a science, and although that means we enjoy wide latitude in word use, it also means that situations arise that are tough to handle. One of those problems is subject/verb agreement, because in some constructions they don’t appear to match. The other problem this article addresses is compound subjects. Here is how to deal with these issues.
You know that subjects and verbs must agree in number. Thus, this is correct:
The president is heading to Camp David for the weekend.
The singular subject, president, agrees in number with the singular verb is. That’s simple enough, but confusion may arise if too many words are between the subject and verb.
The hammers in the toolbox in the garage are missing.
At first glance, it may appear that the preceding sentence contains a subject/verb mismatch—the garage are missing.
But a second look assures us that the sentence is correct. You can determine the subject by removing the prepositional phrases in the toolbox and in the garage. Then we have:
The hammers are missing.
Here’s another example:
A flock of geese are in the garden.
That sentence seems to make sense, but it’s grammatically incorrect. The subject is flock, not geese. If we remove the prepositional phrase of geese we have:
A flock is in the garden.
It’s true that “A flock of geese is in the garden” sounds awkward, so I’d write around the issue. “Geese are in the garden” works. We know by the plural geese that it’s a flock. (What else could it be?)
Subjects with more than one part, which are called compound subjects, also cause confusion. One example is:
My wife and best friend is here.
Wait. Maybe that should be:
My wife and best friend are here.
This is an interesting issue because the sentences have different meanings, depending on the verb.
Here are the rules for dealing with compound subjects:
When subjects are joined by or, nor, either, or neither the verb agrees with the word closest to it.
Neither the president nor any of our three vice presidents are available.
Even though president is singular, vice presidents is plural and therefore we use the plural are.
If a compound subject is connected by and then it’s plural.
The cat and the dog are fighting again.
If the subject parts refer to the same entity, or form a single unit, use a singular verb.
My friend and colleague Fred is willing to help.
Peanut butter and jelly is Sandy’s favorite lunch.
That’s why we could use either is or are in the earlier example. It depends on whether my wife and best friend are two people or one.
(As an interesting aside, I’m writing this using Microsoft Word, and Word insists that the verb in the two sentences above should be are. Word is wrong. The point is you can’t trust computer software to tell you correct word use; there’s no substitute for human knowledge and insight.)
Some words that appear to be plural are singular.
The news is on at 6:30 p.m.
It doesn’t matter that news ends with an s. It’s singular.
Other words are singular but take a plural verb.
The scissors are in the top drawer.
Scissors are a singular noun, but are is a plural verb.
Here are some final examples. Decide if these sentences need singular or plural verbs.
1. The herd of cows is/are ready for milking.
2. Either dress slacks or a skirt is/are required for admission to the seminar.
3. My computers and my cell phone was/were in the office.
The verb refers back to the singular herd, not the plural cows, so it’s singular.
1. The herd of cows is ready for milking.
The term either tells us to use a verb that goes with the noun closest to the verb. Skirt is singular, so write:
2. Either dress slacks or a skirt is required for admission to the seminar.
The compound subject is joined by and, so it’s plural.
3. My computers and my cell phone were in the office.
Writing around the problem
As noted earlier, some of these constructions sound wrong, even though they’re correct. So the best solution is to write around them.
1. The cows are ready for milking.
The herd is ready for milking.
2. Admission to the seminar requires either dress slacks or a skirt.
Note that this solution also kills the weak verb is and saves a word.
Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski