Subjects must agree with verbs and pronouns must agree with antecedents. The basic rule of sentence agreement is really quite simple: A subject must agree with its verb in number. (The number can be singular or plural.) Here’s how it works.
Singular Subjects and Verbs
In grammar, number refers to the two forms of a word: singular (one) or plural (more than one). A singular subject takes a singular verb.
- The boy sings.
The singular subject the boy agrees with the singular verb sings.
- He likes coffee.
The singular subject he agrees with the singular verb likes.
- He is the oldest man to climb Mt Everest.
The singular subject he agrees with the singular verb is.
Plural subjects that function as a single unit take a singular verb.
- Age and experience brings wisdom.
- Slow and steady wins the race.
- Bread and butter is what they want.
- Ham and eggs was the breakfast of champions in the 1950s.
Titles are always singular. It doesn’t matter how long the title is, what it names, or whether or not it sounds plural. As a result, a title always takes a singular verb.
- The Crusades is a book that comes in two volumes.
The singular title The Crusades agrees with the singular verb is — even though the title appears plural, it is singular. That’s because all titles are singular.
- Bombay Times is my favourite newspaper.
The singular title Bombay Times agrees with the singular verb is.
- The Valachi Papers is a good read.
The singular title The Valachi Papers agrees with the singular verb is — even though the title appears plural, it is singular.
Other examples are given below.
- Memories of the War is worth reading.
- Moby Dick is the tale of a whale.
Singular subjects connected by or, either/or, neither/nor, and not only/but also require a singular verb.
- Neither John nor Peter has any right to the property.
- Either the witness or the defendant was lying.
- No prize or medal was given to the boy, though he stood first in the examination.
- An apple or a pear contains about 75 calories each.
Sentence Agreement: Collective nouns
A collective noun denotes a collection of individual persons or objects.
Examples are: crowd, mob, team, flock, herd, army, fleet, jury, nation, family, committee, government etc.
In British English, a collective noun may be treated either as singular (if the whole group is being thought of as a unit) or as plural (if the group is being regarded as a collection of individuals).
- The committee has announced its decision. (The committee is regarded as a unit.)
- The committee are divided on this issue. (The committee is regarded as a group of individuals.)
- The team is on the field.
- The team are changing.
- The class is a bright one.
- The class are a mixed lot.
- His family is living in that house.
- His family are living in various parts of Sydney.
- The jury is in the courtroom.
- The jury are still debating the case.
In American English, a collective noun is almost always treated as singular, and Americans say The committee is divided on this issue.
Sentence Agreement: Indefinite pronouns
Indefinite pronouns can be singular or plural. They do not refer to any person or thing is particular but are used in a general way.
Singular indefinite pronouns (e.g. someone, anyone, everyone, one, somebody, anybody, everybody and nobody) take a singular verb; plural indefinite pronouns (e.g. both, few, many, others and several) take a plural verb. The indefinite pronouns all, any, more, most, none, and some can be singular or plural, depending on how they are used.
- One of my friends is a journalist.
The singular subject one requires the singular verb is.
- Nobody has arrived yet.
The singular subject nobody requires the singular verb has.
- Both boys were given scholarships.
The plural subject both requires the plural verb were.
- All cheese contains fat.
When the indefinite pronoun all is followed by an uncountable noun, the verb is usually singular.
- All my friends like riding.
- All the lights were out.
When the indefinite pronoun all is followed by a plural noun, the verb is usually plural.
- None of his friends have come forward to help him.
- None of these conditions is acceptable to us.
None means not one. It may be followed by a singular or plural verb.
Other examples are given below.
- Some are lucky, others are not.
- Many were killed in the accident.
- All were involved in the accident.
Sentence Agreement: Plural subjects and verbs
A plural subject takes a plural verb.
Dogs make excellent pets.
The plural subject dogs matches the plural verb make.
- They like coffee.
The plural subject they matches the plural verb like.
Two or more singular nouns connected by and are normally followed by a plural verb.
- John and Peter are going to the movies.
- Oil and water do not mix.
- He and I were at Oxford together.
- Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were great presidents.
When the subjects connected by either/or or neither/nor are of different numbers, the plural subject should be written last and it should be followed by a plural verb.
- Neither the chief minister nor his colleagues have visited the site.
- Neither the principal nor the lecturers were present at the meeting.
- Either John or his parents are responsible for this.
When the subjects connected by either/or or neither/nor are of different persons, the verb should agree in person with the subject nearest to it. The subjects should be arranged in the proper order – the person spoken to, first; the person spoken of, second; and the speaker, last.
- Neither he nor I have money to spare for this.
- Either you or John has to take the lead in this matter.