Resources for business and technical writing

Making subjects and verbs agree

We all know about subjects and verbs, and we probably all know about “the rule for subjects and verbs.”

The rule is simple, and most of us know it:

Verbs must agree with their subjects.

If the subject is singular, the verb must be singular. If the subject is plural, the verb must be plural. We indicate a plural subject by adding an –s; we indicate a singular verb by adding an –s. For example:

The AESO submits its application.

All the TFOs submit their applications.

However, the context makes it hard to determine if we are dealing with a singular subject or a plural subject. Here are some of the more common contexts that can be confusing.

  1. Words between the subject and the verb
  2. Subjects joined by and
  3. Subjects joined by or or nor
  4. Subjects that are indefinite pronouns
  5. Subjects that are collective nouns
  6. Subjects that follow the verb
  7. Subjects that are relative pronouns
  8. Subjects that have a plural form but a singular meaning
  9. Subjects that are titles, company names, or words mentioned as words
  10. Subjects that indicate portion
  11. Subjects that are measurements or mathematical expressions

 

a. Words between the subject and the verb

Often a word or a phrase comes between the subject and the verb. Usually this modifies the subject but may contain a noun that may appear to be the subject. We need to simplify the sentence to ensure we use the correct verb form for the true subject of the sentence.

The AESO, along with the interveners, is expected at the Hearing.

The subject is the AESO. So the correct verb is is, not are.

b. Subjects joined by and

Generally, the plural verb should be used with two or more subjects joined by and.

The AESO and the interveners are expected at the Hearing.

Exception 1: When the parts of the subject form a single unit, use the singular verb.

Macaroni and cheese is easy to make.

Note: When we have a compound subject joined by and where one of the subjects is singular and one of the subjects is plural, try and place the plural subject last and use the plural verb.

The serving bowl and the plates go on the shelf.

Compare: The plates and the serving bowl go on the shelf.

Also note: Sometimes the subject is separated from the verb with words that seem like and; words such as along with, as well as, besides, and not. Ignore these phrases when determining if the subject is singular or plural.

The Commissioner, along with the analysts, is expected shortly.

Excitement, as well as nervousness, is the cause of her shaking.

c. Subjects joined by either/or or neither/ nor

When we have a compound subject joined with either/or or neither/nor, make the verb agree with the subject nearest the verb.

Neither the chairperson nor the others are available.

d. Subjects that are indefinite pronouns

Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns, and antecedents are the nouns they stand in for. An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun referring to an identifiable but not specified person or thing. The most common indefinite pronouns are all, another, any, anybody, anyone, anything, each, everybody, everyone, everything, few, many, nobody, none, one, several, some, somebody, and someone.

Treat indefinite pronouns as singular, even though they may seem to have a plural meaning.

Each of the stakeholders has been notified.

Everyone consulted favours alternative one.

e. Subjects that are collective nouns

A collective noun is a noun naming a group of things, animals, or people. We usually consider the group as a single unit, so the singular verb is used.

The jury is dining on take-out chicken tonight.

The class was delighted by this revelation.

f. Subjects that follow the verb

Usually the verb comes after the subject of a sentence. However, when the verbs comes before the subject we can get confused about whether the verb should be singular or plural. Fortunately verbs only come before subjects when the sentence begins with there (there is, there are, there was, there were).

There are a capacitor bank and a voltage regulator already installed in the substation.

A less awkward sounding rewrite of this would be to say:

There is a capacitor bank and there is a voltage regulator already installed in the substation.

An even better rewrite might be:

A capacitor bank and a voltage regulator are already installed in the substation.

g. Subjects that are relative pronouns

Relative pronouns are pronouns that stand in for a noun that comes before the pronoun. There are three relative pronouns, who, which and that. We need to ensure that the verb we choose agrees this the antecedent of the relative pronoun.

The answer that everyone missed was “singular.”

Marty is one of the analysts who have done honour to the AESO.

In the second sentence, the relative pronoun refers to “analysts,” which is plural, so the verb must be plural.

Compare this to:

Marty is the only one of the analysts who has done honour to the AESO.

h. Subjects that have a plural form but a singular meaning

Some nouns, like statistics and series, end with –s, so they look like they are plural, but their meaning is singular.

He soon came to a crossroads.

Here is a more complete list: aerobics, acoustics, athletics, billiards, blues (type of music), calculus, civics, crossroads, darts, dominoes, economics, gymnastics, mathematics, measles, mumps, news, Philippines, physics, politics, rickets, scissors, series, shingles, statistics.

i. Subjects that are titles, company names, or words mentioned as words

This rule is simple, titles, company names, and words mentioned as words (not as a grammatical part of the sentence) are singular.

The ISO’s Operating Policies and Procedures is available online at www.aeso.ca/downloads/ISO_OPP_Print.pdf

j. Subjects that indicate portion

Whenever we express a portion of something, using for example, per cent, fraction, part, majority, some, all, none, or remainder, we usually include a prepositional phrase that includes the preposition of. To decide if the verb should be singular or plural, we need to locate the object of the preposition. If the object is singular, use a singular verb. If the object is plural, use a plural verb.

Fifty per cent of the pie has disappeared.

Fifty per cent of the pies have disappeared.

k. Subjects that are measurements or mathematical expressions

Subjects that express time, distance, weight, money, or other measurements are singular if they refer to a unit, or plural when they refer to separate items.

Two-hundred kilometres is a long distance.

Ten dollars is a high price to pay.

Ten years have passed since that project started.

In the first two sentences, the subjects refers to a single unit (distance, price). In the second sentence the subject refers to separate items (years).

Subjects that are mathematical expressions of subtraction or division are singular. Subjects that are mathematical expressions of addition or multiplication can be either singular or plural. However, we usually prefer the singular.

Ten divided by two is five.

Five times seven equals thirty-five.