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Common Traps to Avoid

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The English language can lay many traps for unwary writers, who can embarrass themselves by using a plural verb with a singular subject (more common) or a singular verb with a plural subject (less common). Once you understand the most common traps, however, you’ll learn to avoid them or perhaps to recast the sentence to prevent the problem from arising.

Some of the traps result from what grammarians call a false attraction. Unwary writers are falsely attracted to some noun other than the subject and mistakenly use its number to determine the number of the verb. Let’s visit some of the more common false attractions.

Attraction to Plural Words

One of the most common traps occurs when a plural noun comes between the true singular subject and the verb. Unwittingly, the writer focuses on the plural intervening word and incorrectly uses a plural verb. Now reread the first sentence of this paragraph, and you’ll see an example of a potential false attraction. My subject is the singular One. My verb is therefore the singular occurs. The plural word traps plays no role in determining the number of the verb. Only the grammatical subject does that.

Further examples will illustrate the problem, with the correct word appearing in brackets:

The wording of the reports have [has] changed.
The singular word wording is the subject; the verb must be the singular has changed.

A long listing of these problems are [is] simply unnecessary.
The singular word listing is the subject; the verb must be the singular is.

The trap enlarges as the number of plural nouns between subject and verb increases and as the distance between subject and verb grows. Look at the blunder of this writer, with subject and incorrect verb appearing in bold type:

This amazing transformation has not been achieved solely by a concept of “interference,” for the provision of “works” (water, drainage, houses, transport, power, schools, hospitals and so on) and of “facilities” (such as education, health services and social security) do [does] not seem to be essentially interferences except to a one-track mind. R.M. Jackson, The Machinery of Justice in England, p. 354 (5th ed. 1967) (quoted in Garner Legal, pp. 840-41).

The singular word provision is the subject; the verb must be the singular does.

Click page 2 below. Attraction to Singular Words

The intervening-word trap usually entails a remote singular subject with plural nouns coming before the verb. But the reverse happens as well—a remote plural subject followed by singular nouns. Thus:

The interests of the author, Fred Jackson, is [are] not the same as the interests of the publisher.
The plural word interests is the subject; the verb must be the plural are.

Attraction to Predicate Noun

Remember the predicate noun? If not, read chapter 1 of the eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech and review what nouns do. The predicate noun is a noun following the verb to be; it restates or identifies the grammatical subject of the sentence. Thus:

The next topic he addressed was the many instances of police corruption.

In the previous sentence, the word topic is the subject of the sentence, and the word instances is the predicate noun, also called the predicate nominative or subject complement. The singular subject topic forces the use of the singular verb was. The plural word instances plays no role in determining the number of the verb.

Remember the rule: The grammatical subject of the sentence always determines the number of the verb. Thus, the predicate noun will never determine the number of the verb. Therefore, you must watch out for a singular grammatical subject (topic) followed by a plural predicate noun (instances). In these sentences, the verb must be singular (was).

Examples of Mistake

When you write these sentences the correct way, a singular subject with a singular verb might sound awkward to readers who don’t know the rule as well as you do. If you think that your readers might lack a thorough understanding of this basic grammatical rule, you might recast the sentence to get rid of the problem. Take a look at this example, which might sound correct to many readers but is distinctly a colossal grammatical blunder by a well-regarded writer:

“The second type of case on which I shall spend a little time are [is] cases of negligence . . . .”

The subject is the singular word type; the verb must be the singular word is even though it is followed by the plural predicate noun cases.

H.L.A. Hart, “Intention and Punishment,” in Punishment and Responsibility: Essays in the Philosophy of Law, p. 132 (1968) (quoted in Garner Legal, p. 841).

Though correct, the group of words—the second type of case is cases—might sound incorrect to many readers. Thus, to get rid of the problem, the author might have written:

The second type of case I will address is the case of negligence . . . .

Click page 3  below.

 Did I Make a Mistake?

Now return to the beginning of this chapter. There you might have said, “Ah, gotcha! I caught you, Ed, making a grammatical mistake!”

You might have thought I goofed with this sentence:

Without any doubt, the most prevalent grammatical mistake is subject-verb disagreements in number.

But now you know I didn’t. The subject is the singular mistake. The verb must be the singular is. The plural predicate noun disagreements plays no role in determining the number of the verb.

In works other than a grammar book—where I want to drive home a point—I would avoid writing sentences with singular subjects (mistake) and plural predicate nouns (disagreements). The sentence, though correct, just looks wrong to most readers. So let me fix it.

Without any doubt, the most prevalent grammatical mistake is the subject-verb disagreement in number.

Columnists Who Get It Right

The columnist, George Will, gets it right. Look at this singular subject joined to plural predicate nouns with the singular verb is:

Perhaps this is pertinent to Dalton’s case, but, again, it seems to suggest that the problem is pornographic pictures or other images . . . .

George F. Will, “The Puzzling Case of a Dirty Diarist,” The Washington Post, July 29, 2001, p. B7.

Consider the reverse situation: a plural subject with a singular predicate noun. Mr. Will’s colleague, David Ignatius, has learned the rule: The grammatical subject always determines the number of the verb. In his column, directly above George Will’s, he writes:

O’Neill’s views about international finance are a case in point.

David Ignatius, “Government by Pep Talk,” The Washington Post, July 29, 2001, p. B7.


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Next: Subjects Joined by “and”

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