Thursday 14 September 2017

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part 2

Check out Part 1 for phrasal connectives, mass nouns, and bickering fairies.

Dancing dervishes
Each of the dancers has his own style.

Indefinite Pronouns

Would you write “Each of the dancers have their own style” or “Each of the dancers has his own style”? Keep your eye on the subject—in this case, each.

  • Each of the dancers has his own style.
  • Of course both of the pirates have eye patches.
  • Which of us hasn’t yearned for a shrubbery? 


  • Meilin is one of those people who aren’t afraid of spiders.

In this case, Meilin is one of X (X being those people who aren’t afraid of spiders). Meilin is the subject and is is the verb. Compare that sentence with the following:

  • One of those people isn’t afraid of spiders.

None can be singular or plural, despite those who claim a singular verb is the only correct choice (“None of us is drunk”). While a singular verb isn’t wrong, even The Chicago Manual of Style thinks it sounds “possibly stilted” (5.220). Chicago’s recommendation is to make the verb agree with the noun following none

  • None of the German fairy tales were conducive to a good night’s sleep.
  • None of the creamed corn is edible.
  • Are you telling me none of them know how to crack a safe?

Alternatively, you could dodge potential arguments by using not one or not any instead.

  • Are you telling me not one of them knows how to crack a safe?
  • Not any of the creamed corn is edible.

Horrifyingly violent illustration from Der Struwwelpeter
None of the German fairy tales were conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Predicate Nouns

“The bait was chocolate-chip cookies” or “The bait were chocolate-chip cookies”? Here cookies is what’s called a predicate nominative or predicate noun: it renames or identifies the subject. Bait is the subject, so the verb should be singular to agree with it—was

  • The general’s passion was Fred Astaire movies.
  • Jivika’s weakness is kittens.

If the correct version still sounds weird, you can reword it.

  • Fred Astaire movies were the general’s passion.
  • Kittens are Jivika’s weakness.

Nouns That Look Plural but Act Singular

Nouns like mumps and news are plural in form but are treated as singular: “Mumps was prevalent,” “Good news is always welcome.” Others are less clear-cut. Mathematics, for example, is usually treated as singular but may be plural when used in the operational sense.

  • Mathematics is the underlying language of the universe.
  • Her theory’s mathematics were indisputable.

Similarly, politics is usually singular when it refers to political science or the process of governing, but it can be singular or plural in the sense of an activity or a set of principles.

  • Politics is for people who have too much idealism or none.
  • That man’s politics are distasteful.

Compound Subjects Revisited

Although subjects joined by and take a plural verb (as covered in Part 1), they can sometimes be treated as a singular unit. 

  • Skipping and jumping were his favourite hobbies. (Two subjects)
  • Skipping and jumping was her recess activity of choice. (One subject)
  • Battered and fried is how I like my Mars bars.
  • Wine, women, and song was all the poet cared about. 

Of course, smoothing your reader’s path is more important than impressing them with your grasp of grammar, so always consider alternate wordings.

  • Her recess activity of choice was skipping and jumping.
  • I like my Mars bars battered and fried.
  • All the poet cared about was wine, women, and song. 

Lobby card from Top Hat
The general’s passion was Fred Astaire movies.

Whether plural or singular, you can support Grammarlandia at

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