Subject-Verb Agreement - Plural Subjects

  edgood  —  Grammar Tips
Watch Out

Before winding up our discussion of conjunctions, we need to visit the notion of subject-verb agreement in number. When you write a plural subject, you must use a plural verb. When you write a singular subject, you must use a singular verb.

As a general rule, when you join subjects with the conjunction and, you form a plural subject, which requires a plural verb.
The critic and the author rarely agree.
Often, however, two singular nouns joined with and produce a subject singular in sense, which calls for a singular verb. This often happens when a prepositional phrase follows the second noun but modifies the entire singular idea. Look at this example from New Fowler:
[T]he usefulness and credibility of such an arms control agreement hinges on the reliability of seismic technology. New Fowler, p. 34.
Along With and As Well As Do Not Form Plural Subjects

Beware of words that join but do not qualify as true conjunctions and thus do not form plural subjects. These words include as well as, along with, together with, not to mention, and others. Again, another example from New Fowler:
A very profitable company such as British Telecom, along with many other companies in the UK, is not prepared to pay a reasonable amount. New Fowler, p. 35.
Neither-Nor, Subject-Verb Agreement

The problem of subject-verb agreement also crops up when you use correlative conjunctions. When you use neither . . . nor to join two subjects of a clause, you will confront the problem of number. Must the verb appear in the singular or the plural? When neither . . . nor joins two singular subjects, the verb must be singular as well. Like this:
Neither the player nor the coach wants to lose the game.
But if the neither . . . nor expression joins two plural subjects, then the verb must be plural as well.
Neither the players nor the coaches want to lose the game.
The problem arises, naturally enough, when you use neither . . . nor to join a singular subject and a plural subject. What then? What happens, for example, when our subject appears like this:
Neither the players nor the coach . . . .
Do we use a singular verb or a plural verb? Grammarians differ in their answers. One group insists that writers should avoid these structures, that they should “write around” the problem. Following this group’s advice would yield this:
The players do not want to lose the game, and neither does the coach.
I find this approach way too restrictive. For example, that solution forces me to use the do not expression when I would prefer to use the neither . . . nor structure to express the negative condition.

Thus, I follow the advice of the second group of grammarians. Their advice makes sense, preserves the neither . . . nor expression, and gives the writer greater latitude. It goes like this: The number of the verb is governed by the number of the noun closer to the verb. If that noun is singular, then the verb is singular. If that noun is plural, then the verb is plural.

Take a look at the following two sentences:
Neither the players nor the coach wants to lose the game. Neither the coach nor the players want to lose the game.
See how it works? In the first sentence, the singular noun coach requires the singular verb wants. But in the second sentence, the plural noun players requires the plural verb want. Whichever noun is closer governs the number of the verb.

We’ll study the problem of subject-verb disagreement in more detail in the eBook Common Grammatical Mistakes.


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