Although it is rather easy to make the English verb agree with the subject, complex subjects can sometimes lead to subject-verb agreement problems.
By Marina Pantcheva
The first thing we need to do in order to choose the right verb form is to find the subject. We can do this by asking who or what performs the activity in the sentence. Then we must determine the number of the subject: is it singular (one) or plural (more than one). The next step is to make the verb agree – plural subjects take verbs in plural form (are, have, do, play, sing); singular subjects take verbs in singular form (is, has, does, plays, sings).
(1) The boy reads a book.
(2) The boys read a book.
In short, if you have –s on the subject, there is no –s on the verb and vice versa.
[This seems very simple but might be difficult for native speakers of languages where subject-verb agreement means precisely that the verb and the subject bear the same morphemes!]
Sometimes, it is quite tricky to determine whether the subject is singular or plural. This is most often due to a complex structure of the subject where part of it is plural, but the subject as a whole is singular. For example:
(3) Each of the conference participants was confused.
[not: Each of the conference participants were confused.]
(4) The pot of potatoes is boiling.
[not: The pot of potatoes are boiling. ]
The subject in (3) is each of the conference participants. It is a singular subject despite the presence of the plural noun participants.
Here comes a list of some tricky singular subjects.
- everyone, someone, anyone, no one, each (one) of […]
- everything, something, anything, nothing
- everybody, somebody, anybody, nobody
- each, every
(5) Each student and teacher on campus was shocked by the news.
(6) Every house and hut in this village has flowers in the garden.
- neither of and either of when used alone. But see example (14) for a plural use of neither and either.
(7) Neither of the two boys admits to having broken the window.
(8) Either of the parents wants to have custody of the child.
Sentences (7) and (8) might sound wrong because there are two parents and two boys, but the subject is still taken to be singular for the purposes of agreement.
Here comes an even more counterintuitive singular subject:
- more than one
(9) More than one scientist is trying to find a cure for HIV.
Example (9) is indeed surprising – there are obviously many scientists who try to find a cure for HIV, but the verb is still singular. The reason for this is that one is always followed by a singular noun (one scientist), and the verb agrees with this singular noun.
A tiny change to the expression more than one changes the agreement on the verb. This brings us to the topic of plural subjects.
- more than one of
(10) More than one of the scientists working on a HIV-cure believe in a prompt breakthrough.
The Word spell-checker claims that one needs a singular verb in (10). The spell-checker is wrong. When more than one is followed by of and a plural noun, the verb is plural.
Another tricky and counterintuitive case is:
- fewer than two
(11) Fewer than two students want to take the exam.
There is obviously only one student who wants to take the exam; still the verb must be plural. The logic is the same as in example (9): two must be followed by a plural noun (students), and the verb agrees with it.
- Compound subjects, e.g., Tom and Mary, the cup and the saucer.
(12) Tom and Mary want to get married.
(13) The cup and the saucer are dirty.
The proximity rule
In some cases, the agreement tracks the number of the noun closest to the verb. This is called The Proximity Rule. This rule applies to the subjects containing the following words:
- either X or Y
- neither X nor Y
- not only X but also Y
- X or Y
- X together with Y
- X as well as Y
Be aware that the verb can change its position with respect to the subject. In a declarative sentence, it follows the subject; the closest noun to the verb is therefore Y. However, the verb precedes the subject in questions; in such case, the closest noun to the verb is the first one, X. This is why we choose are in (14) and is in (15) although the subject is the same.
(14) Neither the President nor his advisors were able to foresee the catastrophic consequences of this decision.
(15) Is either the President or his advisors going to resign?
Agreement in there is/are and here is/are
There and here are never subjects. The subject follows the verb, and the verb should always agree with it.
(16) There are two men waiting for you.
(17) Here is a difficult question.
Finally, in constructions of the type “X is Y”, the verb always agrees with X.
(18) My favorite type of books is novels.
[not: My favorite type of books are novels. ‘Type’ is the subject]
If we switch the ordering in (18), we have:
(19) Novels are my favorite type of books.