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Subject-verb agreement

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Subject-verb agreementIndefinite pronouns

Subject-verb agreement

In the present tense, verbs agree with their subjects in number (singular or plural) and in person (first, second, or third). If the subject is third-person singular (he/she/it), the present-tense ending of the verb will generally be –s (or –es, e.g., she gives). Otherwise, the verb takes no ending (e.g. I give, we give). (The verb be is an exception, since it has special forms in both the present and the past tenses.)

Make sure the verb agrees with its subject, not with a different word or word group that separates them (usually the subject complement, which names or describes the subject).

Difficult pieces of musical composition requires constant practice.

Revised: Difficult pieces of musical composition require constant practice.

A major proportion of the North American population are immigrants.

Revised: A major proportion of the North American population is immigrants.

Compound subjects

A subject with two or more components connected by and is called a compound subject and is nearly always plural.

 The walls and the ceiling of the house were painted white.

Singular subjects

However, if the components of the subject form one unit or if they refer to the same person or thing, treat the subject as singular.

Sarah’s home and office was where she spent most of her time.

When each or every precedes a compound subject, treat the subject as singular.

Every bone, muscle, and organ helps the human body function.

Note: As Diana Hacker’s A Canadian Writer’s Reference (3rd ed.) notes, titles of works, company names, “words mentioned as words,” and gerund phrases are singular.

Finding lost treasure (gerund phrase) is a dream of many people.

Desperate measures is an overused expression.

Additionally, Hacker identifies words like athletics, mathematics, statistics, news, economics, physics, and Mumps as generally singular, despite their plural forms, EXCEPT when they describe distinct items instead of “a collective body of knowledge.”

Athletics in the Olympic Games vary between winter and summer sports.

Or, nor, either, neither

With subjects connected by or, nor, either … or, or neither … nor, the verb should agree with the part of the subject nearer to the verb.

Neither Jim’s kidneys nor his liver was healing as the doctor had predicted.

A dancer or gymnast is necessary for the performance.

When an alarm or siren goes off, my dog tries to hide from the sound.

Either Lyn’s sister or parents are coming for graduation.

Verbs typically follow subjects, but even if the order is inverted, the subject and the verb should still agree.

There were surprisingly few options on the menu.

Indefinite pronouns

Treat most indefinite pronouns (which refer to nonspecific persons or things) as singular. Indefinite pronouns include anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, no one, somebody, someone, something.

Everyone in the class was talking at the same time.

All, any, none, some

Certain indefinite pronouns (all, any, none, some) may be singular or plural, depending on the noun or pronoun to which they refer.

Any of Stephen King’s books are good reading choices.

All of his pain medication was gone.

Some public schools have a French Immersion program.

None of the counsellor’s career advice was useful.

Collective nouns

Collective nouns (jury, committee, crowd, army, audience, group, staff, family, couple, etc.) should be treated as singular unless the meaning is distinctly plural.

The crowd has been rioting for three days.

The barbershop quartet were arguing about which song to perform next.

The second sentence can be clarified, however, by adding a clearly plural noun like members. This modification emphasizes the individuality of those in the group, since only individuals can argue.

Revised: The members of the barbershop quartet were arguing about which song to perform next.