In most sentences, getting the subject and verb to agree is easy. However, three tricky types of sentences can turn this simple task into a complicated feat that requires three grammar handbooks and a call to your old English teacher.
1. Subjects connected by or
Subjects connected by and are easy: they take plural verbs.
The dean and faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.
However, in sentences with subjects connected by or (and in either/or, neither/nor sentences), the order of the sentence dictates the verb, with the verb matching the subject closest to it.
Neither the dean nor the faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.
Neither the faculty members nor the dean is creating the new hiring guidelines.
2. Sentences with words between the subject and verb
The goal of our Healthy Workplace Now and after-hours exercise programs is to reduce employee absenteeism.
It may sound strange to hear the words programs and is next to each other, but the above sentence is correct. The subject of the sentence is goal: The goal is to reduce employee absenteeism. It doesn’t matter how many words are between the subject and verb or whether those words are singular or plural.
3. Sentences with indefinite subjects
The following pronouns take singular verbs, even if they imply a sense of being plural:
- no one
Everybody who applied for promotions is required to attend Monday’s meeting.
No one from the Kentucky or Tennessee offices is invited to the meeting.
If each stands alone as a subject, it takes a singular verb. If it isn’t standing alone, the verb choice will vary depending on whether the expression means “each one” or “both.”
Each of the committees has submitted a final report. (stands alone, so it’s singular)
Each manager and assistant manager is required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means each one, so it’s singular)
The manager and assistant manager each are required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means both, so it’s plural)
Other indefinite pronouns are more complicated. For example, some grammar handbooks still claim that the word none means “not one” and should always be singular. However, that interpretation has been disputed for centuries, with many distinguished grammarians pointing out that the meaning is closer to “not any.” Some sources that concur on the idea of none being plural in many uses:
- Fowler’s Modern English Usage (dating back to the 1926 version)
- The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
- Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage
- The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style
The misconception about none is similar to the classroom grammar myths outlined in a previous post except that it actually appears in some grammar handbooks, so I will call it a mythinterpretation.
Patricia O’Conner, author of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, calls the issue “none sense” and gives the clearest explanation:
If it suggests “none of them,” it’s plural: None of the fans are fighting. None are excited enough.
If it suggests “none of it,” it’s singular: None of the bout was seen in Pittsburgh. None was worth broadcasting.
Note: When you really do mean “not one,” it’s better to say “not one” and use a singular verb: Not one of Holyfield’s fingers was broken.
I hope these last three blog posts have helped your sentences to be more agreeable.
Next time: Don’t talk to me! (Correct use of you)
Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford, 1996. Print.
Butler, et al. Correct Writing. 6th ed. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1995. Print.
Garner, Bryan A. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York: Oxford, 2000. Print.
Hacker, Diana. The Bedford Handbook for Writers. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford, 1994. Print.
Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2010. Print.
Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 2002.
O’Conner, Patricia T. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Putnam, 1996. Print.