Sunday, 3 September 2017

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part 1

Neither Lin-Manuel nor Irina has been to Mars before. Or should that be “have been”?

One of the fundamental rules of grammar is that a verb should agree with its subject: “We are going,” not “We am going.” If you’re a native English speaker, this probably comes naturally to you, but sometimes the correct verb isn’t obvious.

Pulp sci-fi magazine cover
Neither Lin-Manuel nor Irina has been to Mars before.

Compound Subjects

Two or more singular subjects connected by and take a plural verb. (There are occasional exceptions, but we’ll discuss those in Part 2.) This feels pretty obvious in practice.

  • The lion and the unicorn need to have a talk.
  • A lama, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar.

Singular subjects connected by or and nor, however, take a singular verb.

  • Yun or the dog has demolished the cake.
  • Neither Lin-Manuel nor Irina has been to Mars before.

When you have a singular subject and a plural subject joined by or or nor, the verb agrees with whichever is closest.

  • Neither the sensei nor his students were prepared for the monster.
  • The bicycle acrobats or their manager has broken the contract.

Phrasal Connectives

Phrases like as well as, along with, together with, and in addition to don’t make a singular subject plural. Whether set apart with commas, dashes, or parentheses—or not set apart at all—phrasal connectives don’t affect the rest of the sentence (see also this Q & A).

  • The samurai Noguchi, together with his cat, goes for a walk every day.
  • The snake as well as Pia likes a good story.

If the correct sentence sounds awkward, you can always reword it.

  • The snake and Pia like a good story.

Illustration: Lady chats with snake
The snake as well as Pia likes a good story.

Collective Nouns

Group subjects like family, team, and mob are called collective nouns or mass nouns. In the UK they’re more likely to be accompanied by plural verbs, and in Canada and the US by singular verbs: “My family are coming to visit” versus “My family is coming to visit.” According to The Chicago Manual of Style, collective nouns take a singular verb when they’re acting as a unit and a plural verb when they’re acting as a collection of individuals.

  • The murder of crows passing overhead looks ominous.
  • The fairy host are continually bickering among themselves.

Media, in the sense of “mass communication,” used to always be treated as plural, and this usage is still preferred by the Chicago Manual.

  • The media are having a collective hissy fit.

But outside of formal writing, “the media” is so often treated as singular that lexicographers admit the word is becoming a collective noun, like data. Even the Associated Press Stylebook allowed in 2016 that when being considered as a group, media can take a singular verb.

  • Social media is both a blessing and a curse.

Arthur Rackham: The Meeting of Oberon and Titania
The fairy host are continually bickering among themselves.

Coming up in Part 2: none, predicate nominatives, and chocolate-chip cookies

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