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Author Topic: Unsettling violations of the subject-verb agreement rule  (Read 123 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: May 16, 2017, 08:59:26 AM »

Last week, as I was finishing my column that reviewed the subject-verb agreement rule, I thought I could already comfortably leave the subject for good. I was wrong. I soon found out that the misuse of the rule is much more serious and pervasive than I thought. And I saw much more clearly that the problem is due not only to a faulty understanding of that rule but also to certain quirks of the English language itself.

I began to entertain this idea when, shortly before sending that column to press, I saw on cable TV another statement that flagrantly violated the subject-verb agreement rule: “The fans has spoken.” (The correct construction is, of course, “The fans have spoken.”) And that very same evening, while browsing a popular job-posting web site, I came across a want ad by an offshore leasing services firm that violated the rule even more flagrantly.   

The want ad for a senior writer ran as follows:

“The person have to write simple articles on business plan…
“The writer have to be creative with the subject…”

(Instead of “have,” “has” should have been used, the nouns “person” and “writer” being both singular.)

And then, just two days ago, I was confronted by this peculiar e-mail from a reader:

“I have a problem... I saw a sign... ‘DEAD: D - Drugs… E - Ends… A - All Your… D - Dreams.’
“Is it ‘ends’ or ‘end’?”

(The answer, of course, is “end” because the subject, “drugs,” is plural.)

Clearly, then, not a few people who write in English don’t have a clear grasp of how the subject-verb agreement rule really works in practice.

This may come as a surprise because the rule looks very simple: for a singular subject, the verb must also be singular; for a plural subject, that verb must also be plural.

For nouns and regular verbs in the present tense, applying this rule is easy. To make a noun plural, we simply add an “s” to its singular form, and to make a verb plural, we take out the “s” from its singular form: “The girl dances.” “The girls dance.” The rule is even easier to apply in the past tense because whether the noun is singular or plural, its operative verb takes only one form—with a “-d” or “-ed” affixed to it: “The girl danced.” “The girls danced.”

For personal pronouns, however, applying the subject-verb agreement rule isn’t that simple. To avoid complications at this point, let’s just look into the usage of the subjective forms of the personal pronouns—first person: “I” (singular), “we” (plural); second person: “you” (singular), “you” (plural); and third person: “he,” “she,” and “it” (singular), “they” (plural).”

As subjects of regular verbs, all of these personal pronouns except “I” and “you” follow the subject-verb agreement rule: “We dance.” “We danced.” “He [she] dances.” He [she] danced.” “It dances.” “It danced.” “They dance.” “They danced.”

The problem is with “I” and the singular “you” in the present tense. They behave irregularly and don’t follow the subject-verb agreement rule. Although both singular in form, they require plural forms of verbs: “I want a sandwich.” “You want a sandwich.” (Not, as might be expected, “I wants a sandwich” and “You wants a sandwich.”)

The situation gets even more confusing when “I” and the singular “you” are used with the irregular verbs “be” or “have” in the present tense. See how eccentric their behavior is: “I am happy.” “I have enough money.” “You are happy.” “You have enough money.” “He [she] is happy.” “He [she] has enough money.” Nothing in the subject-verb agreement rule prepares us for these irregular grammar behaviors. They can really get the uninitiated all mixed up in figuring their singulars and plurals.

It is no wonder that we keep on seeing all those disastrous applications of the subject-verb agreement rule. (2006)

This essay, 496th in the series, first appeared on August 6, 2006 in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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