Verb number and agreement

This post assumes you’re comfortable with the basis of verb-subject agreement and focuses instead on a quick review plus special cases that often trip people up. For a basic refresher on the topic, visit https://webapps.towson.edu/ows/moduleSVAGR.htm or https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/599/01/.

Person

A verb’s person shows whether the act, state, or condition is that of:

(1) the person speaking (first person: I or we),
(2) the person spoken to (second person: you), or
(3) the person spoken of (third person: he, she, it, or they).

Number

The number of a verb must agree with the number of the noun or pronoun used with it. In other words, the verb must be singular or plural.

The following rules apply to regular verbs (as opposed to irregular verbs such as “to be”).

  • The first-person verb is always singular in form, whether one person or more than one person is speaking {I eat custard pies, we eat custard pies}.
     
  • The second-person verb is always plural in form, whether one person or more than one person is spoken to {you ate that pie all by yourself, you ate that pie all by yourselves}.
     
  • Only verbs in the third person (in most cases) change form to indicate number and person {I bake, we bake, you bake, they bake, but she bakes}.

Agreement in person and number

  • A finite verb agrees with its subject in person and number.
     
  • When a verb has two or more subjects connected by and, it agrees with them jointly and is plural {Socrates and Plato were wise}.
     
  • When a verb has two or more singular subjects connected by or or nor it is singular {Jill or Jan is prepared to speak, neither Bob nor John has learned his lesson}.
     
  • When the subject is a collective noun conveying the idea of unity or multitude, the verb is singular {the nation is powerful}.
     
  • When the subject is a collective noun conveying the idea of plurality, the verb is plural {the faculty were divided in their sentiments.}.”
     

False attraction to predicate nominative

“A plural predicate nominative after a singular subject may mislead a writer by suggesting a plural verb. When this occurs, the simple correction of changing the number of the verb may make the sentence awkward, and the better approach then is to rework the sentence:”

WRONG: My downfall are sweets.
RIGHT: My downfall is sweets.
BETTER: Sweets are my downfall.

Misleading connectives: “as well as,” “along with,” “together with,” and so forth

“Adding to a singular subject by using phrasal connectives such as along with, as well as, in addition to, together with, and the like does not make the subject plural. This type of distraction can be doubly misleading because the intervening material seems to create a compound subject, and the modifying prepositional phrase may itself contain one or more plural objects. If the singular verb sounds awkward in such a sentence, it may be better to use the conjunction and instead:”

WRONG: The bride as well as her bridesmaids were dressed in mauve.
RIGHT: The bride as well as her bridesmaids was dressed in mauve.
BETTER: The bride and her bridesmaids were dressed in mauve.

(From Chicago 16, 5.129 through 5.133)

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Using “that” and “which”

That and which have distinct uses.

That introduces a restrictive clause, that is, the information in that clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Which introduces a nonrestrictive clause—the information in that clause is not essential to the meaning of the sentence—and therefore should be preceded by a comma. For example, in He supports programs that encourage young people, the “that” clause specifies what kinds of programs he supports. But in She supports Habitat for Humanity, which constructs houses for low-income buyers, the “which” clause adds incidental information—the information is nonessential to the main thrust of the sentence.

IF THE PREVIOUS PARAGRAPH MADE YOUR HEAD SPIN, JUST GO BY THIS: “If you see a which without a comma before it, nine times out of ten it needs to be a that. The one other time, it needs a comma. Your choice, then, is between comma-which and that. Use that whenever you can.” A LITTLE MORE GUIDANCE: “First, if you cannot omit the clause without changing the basic meaning, the clause is restrictive; use that without a comma. Second, if you can omit the clause without changing the basic meaning, the clause is nonrestrictive; use a comma plus which. Third, if you ever find yourself using a which that doesn't follow a comma, it probably needs to be a that.”