In a previous discourse, we understood the significance of GENDER and NUMBER in grammatically acceptable oral and written communication. We also realized how NUMBER could help us (to) abide by the rule of concord (subject – verb agreement), a major area of failure to many writers and speakers of English as a Second Language. Today, we try to maximize our understanding of agreement between tricky subjects and verbs. This we do by revising the basic rules for making straight forward subjects and verbs agree in sentences. We then present some guidelines for dealing with some of the tricky subject-verb agreement cases that commonly confuse writers and speakers.
By the end of this discussion, fellow students and readers should be able to improve their understanding of:
- Agreement between simple subjects and verbs
- Agreement between tricky subjects and verbs
- Agreement between collective nouns as subjects and verbs
- Agreement between subject nouns or pronouns joined by coordinative and correlative conjunctions.
Simple Subject–Verb Situation
In general, subjects and verbs must agree in NUMBER, as stated in the previous discussion. This means that a singular subject must have a singular verb, and a plural subject must have a plural verb. Below are examples of this general rule.
- YELSUMA is gentle. [Singular].
- KOFI and ROSEMARY are friends. [Plural].
Tricky Subject – Verb Situation
When dealing with simple subjects like those in the examples above, making the subjects and verbs agree is straightforward. Some subjects are, however, not so simple. The following guidelines will help you deal with these complex subjects and make them agree with verbs. Please, note that in each example, the subject is in UPPERCASE, and the verb remains in lowercase.
When the subject of a sentence is made up of two or more nouns or pronouns (either singular or plural) connected by “and”, use a plural verb.
- The BOOK and the LAPTOP are new.
- AKOLOGU and His BROTHERS lean French all the time.
When the subject of a sentence comprises two or more singular nouns or pronouns connected by “either...or” or “neither...nor”, use a singular verb.
- Either KOFI or HASSAN comes here every day.
- Neither KATAALE nor WUNPINI is a lazy student.
NOTE: Sometimes “either” is needless, and “or” alone is used. Blow are explanations and examples:
The verb should agree with the noun that is closer to the verb when the subject has both a singular noun or pronoun and a plural noun or pronoun connected by “or” or “nor.”
- The KITCHEN or the BEDROOMS are clean. [Plural noun closer to the verb “are”].
- The BEDROOMS or the KITCHEN is clean. [Singular noun closer to the verb “is”].
Special Singular Subjects
The following words are all singular and therefore require singular verbs in concord: EACH, EACH ONE, EITHER, NEITHER, EVERYONE, EVERYBODY, ANYBODY, ANYONE, NOBODY, SOMEBODY, SOMEONE, NO ONE.
- EACH of these pens is black.
- NOBODY knows the outcome of the presidential election.
- EVERYBODY thinks he or she can sing really well.
In existential sentences beginning with “there are” or “there is”, pay attention to what follows “there.” This element, which is usually the grammatical subject, determines the usage of either “are” or “is.” If the subject is plural, use “are”; if the subject is singular, use “is.”
- There are TEN CARS for his Highness Nanton Naa (Chief of Nanton). [Ten cars: plural].
- There is A MEETING for fresh students today. [A meeting: singular].
Some subjects imply more than one person, but can be treated as singular or plural depending on the context. These are called COLLECTIVE NOUNS. Examples include GROUP, TEAM, COMMITTEE, CLASS, BAND, and FAMILY. In concord, each of these nouns requires a singular verb if it is considered a unit. But they all take plural verbs when the writer or the speaker uses them in reference to the individual members.
- The COMMITTEE meets tomorrow. [Here the COMMITTEE is seen as a unit].
- My FAMILY are intelligent. [Here FAMILY is treated as the individual members of it].
It is instructive to remind fellow students and readers not to be misled by phrases that come between the subject and the verb in some cases. Mostly, these phrases are modifiers of the subject. Always remember that the verb should agree with the subject of the sentence, not with the noun(s) or pronoun(s) in the phrase. Carefully identifying the subject of the sentence will help you avoid this confusion.
- ONE of the dogs runs slowly.
- The PEOPLE who sing and dance are always popular.
In the first sentence, the subject is “one” which is singular. It therefore agrees with “runs” – a singular verb. When we are not careful, we are more likely to be confused by the noun “dogs” which is plural and should, therefore, NOT agree with the verb “runs.” Remember “dogs” appears between the subject “one” and the verb “runs.” The same explanation applies in the second sentence where “dance” could be mistaken as a singular noun expected to agree with the verb “are.” Absolute care is needed to avoid this confusion.
Allah is the Best Grammarian.
Halliday, M. A. K. (2004). An introduction to functional grammar. (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of teaching English language. (3rd ed.). England: Longman.
Quirk, R.& Greenbaum, S. (2000). A university grammar of English. London: Pearson Education Ltd.
Quagie, J. K. (2010). English: a tool for communication. Accra: Hybrid Publication.
By Abubakar Mohammed Marzuq Azindoo, Coordinator of Students and University Relations, University of Applied Management (UAM), Germany – Ghana Campus, McCarthy Hill, Accra and Tamale
Email: [email protected] Tell: 0244755402