Writing E-Tips
March 2005   
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"Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your
reader will be sure to skip them, and in the plainest possible words,
or he will certainly misunderstand them."

-- John Ruskin


Avoiding Sentence Errors, Part I

Subject-Verb Agreement: Number

     You know that in every sentence you write, the subject and verb must agree in number. It doesn’t seem too difficult—if your subject is singular, the verb must be singular; plural subjects need plural verbs. However, there are instances in which the number of the subject is somewhat unclear. The following are examples of tricky syntax, along with some clues to help you win this numbers game.

DELAYED SUBJECTS

When the subject comes after the verb, it is called a delayed subject, and the sentence is referred to as an inverted sentence. While this might be stylistically interesting, you must double-check to make sure the verb agrees with the subject.

So important is the completion of this project to the company that we will hire additional help.
(The subject "completion" follows the verb "is.")

Many inverted sentences begin with the word “there.” Don’t be fooled into thinking that “there” is the subject of the sentence—it’s not. But it is a clue that the sentence is inverted and that the subject will be found after the verb.

There are rules already in place regarding employee use of company e-mail.
(The subject “rules” is plural and agrees with the verb “are.”)

There is a desire in today’s worker to feel part of a corporate family.
(The subject “desire” is singular and agrees with the verb “is.”)

COMPOUND SUBJECTS

Two or more subjects connected by a coordinating conjunction are called a compound subject. Compound subjects connected with and take a plural verb.

Both Ms. Hargrove and Mr. Grant approve of the change in policy.

When compound subjects are connected with the conjunction or or nor, the verb should agree with the subject closest to it.

Neither excuses nor delay is acceptable at this point
Neither delay nor excuses are acceptable at this point.

INDEFINITE PRONOUNS

The indefinite pronouns each, either, neither, one, everybody, another, anybody, anyone, anything, everyone, everything, nobody, somebody, and someone are singular. These pronouns require a singular verb.

Somebody starts the coffeemaker every morning before I get here.

The indefinite pronouns both, few, several, and many are plural and require a plural verb.

Few realize the tremendous significance of the policy change.

The indefinite pronouns all, any, most, none, and some often precede a prepositional phrase that includes a related noun. These subjects may be singular or plural, depending on the number of the noun in the prepositional phrase.

Any of these problems are solvable in time.
(“Problems,” the noun in the prepositional phrase, is plural. The subject “any” refers to that noun, making it plural as well. Therefore, the verb must be plural.)

Most of the coffee is gone by 10:00 a.m.
("Coffee" is singular. The subject "most," thereby considered singular, requires the singular verb "is.")

COLLECTIVE NOUNS

A collective noun indicates a group of people or things—words like team, class, crowd, or pair. Collective nouns may be singular or plural.

A collective noun is singular when it refers to the group as a whole.

Each unit is required to submit an evaluation form upon completion of its project.

A collective noun is plural when the group members are referred to as individuals.

The committee are asked to provide individual feedback on the provided forms.

If such a construction seems awkward, consider changing the function of the collective noun to that of an adjective, as in the following sentence:

The committee members are asked to provide individual feedback on the provided forms.

OTHER AGREEMENT PROBLEMS

Some nouns are singular but appear plural in form. Examples include news, mathematics, and measles. Words such as ethics, politics, and athletics are singular when used as a general area of interest or study.

Politics is one subject we won't discuss.

The same words are plural when referring to a specific practice or trait.

His ethics are subject to question.

If a modifying phrase or clause is inserted between the subject and verb, be sure the verb agrees with the subject and not with the noun in the interrupting phrase.

Myra, who questions all our ideas, is concerned about the cost of the project.
(The verb “is concerned” agrees with the singular subject “Myra” rather than the plural noun “ideas” in the inserted clause.)


The preceding tips are from
Write for Business:
A Compact Guide to Writing and Communicating

now available for purchase at www.upwritepress.com.

Coming in the April Issue:
“Avoiding Sentence Errors, Part II:
Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement”


Write for Business: A Compact Guide to Writing and Communicating
is available for purchase at 1-800-261-0637 ext. 10,
or on the Web at www.upwritepress.com.

"Writing E-Tips" is a publication of UpWrite Press, Inc.
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