Today’s topic: subject-verb agreement!
I’ve ranted about this before, but it keeps coming up so I’m going to go over it for my own edification. I was inspired to address subject-verb agreement while waiting at a red light yesterday, listening to some interviewee on NPR fail to equate his subject and verb not once, but at least three times (I stopped listening after that. The guy being interviewed was supposedly a stand up comic, but he was DREADFUL. It was, literally, the first time I’ve ever tuned away from NPR…)
So, here’s the scoop: if you’ve got a singular subject (who or what the sentence is about), then you need a singular verb and, obviously, vice-versa. Most of the time, this is pretty straight forward:
Beanie prefers peanut butter to tuna sandwiches. – single subject “Beanie,” singular verb “prefers.”
The salespeople in the Mega-Mart communicate with Dora the Explorer walkie-talkies. – plural subject “salespeople,” plural verb form “communicate.”
It gets a little more complicated when there are multiple subjects. In this case, look to the conjunction to see who you’re actually talking about; and generally means a plural subject – or means singular:
Steve, Kyle and I meet every Thursday at the local karaoke bar to discuss pork belly futures. (Here, we’re talking about three people – “all of us” meet. But…)
Either Lisa, Haley or Kim works the closing shift at the pool hall. (Here, we’re talking about only one of them – they don’t ALL work the closing shift – it’s a choice among the three.)
This gets trickier, though, when the last item in your subject series is plural. In that case, your verb will also be plural:
Whenever we go out to eat, either Mike, Jen, or the twins pick up the tab.
There’s still a lot of confusion going around about whether some nouns are plural or not. Collective nouns, in particular, give people headaches – “team,” “committee,” “family,” and the like. Again, the verb one uses will depend on what one is trying to say:
If the noun is treated as a single entity, it uses a singular verb:
The choir sings every Friday and Saturday night through the month of December. (all of them sing together)
The second grade class eats lunch at 11:40. (all of them eat lunch as a group)
If the members that make up that collective noun are treated individually, though, the verb takes a plural form:
The choir were informed of their singing parts at least a month in advance. (each member got his or her own singing assignment as individuals)
The second grade class were given achievement tests last month. (each kid took his or her own test)
This is often where trouble happens. Try replacing whatever collective noun you have with either “it” or “they” and use whatever verb form works:
It (the choir) sings every Friday
They (the students of the second grade class) took the test.
There is enough material in subject-verb agreement to go on for quite a while, but the last bit I’m going to say is about adding expressive quantity to a thing. I can’t tell you how many times I YELL at the television or the radio when someone says “there’s a million reasons…” or “There’s a lot of politicians who…” or something like that. The subjects of those clauses are not “a million” or “a lot,” but, rather, “reasons” and “politicians.” Notice the ‘s’ on the ends? They’re plural, and as such, the sentences should read “there ARE a million reasons” and “there ARE a lot of politicians.”
Don’t even get me started about how only one in three kids get enough of anything. ONE kid, PEOPLE! ONE kid GETS!