Author Topic: About that subject-verb agreement question  (Read 16345 times)

Joe Carillo

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About that subject-verb agreement question
« on: May 17, 2009, 11:20:15 PM »
In “Give Your English the Winning Edge”, you write: “Many people discover to their dismay that their many years of formal study of English has not given them the proficiency level demanded by the job market, by the various professions, or by higher academic studies.”

Although “many years of study” has a sense of singularity, it is still undeniably a plural subject and therefore demands “have”.

And, in a list of attributes, should not there be a comma after each, except the second last?

In the same vein, “In this exciting new volume, the National Book Award-winning author of English Plain and Simple unravels the various mechanisms and tools of English for combining words and ideas into clear, logical, and engaging writing.”

There is a comma after the second-last adjective. In my brief squiz at the excerpt from GYETWE, I noted that you do this all the time. Has some authority changed convention?


You are actually not the first to point out that since “many years of study” is a plural subject in the sentence in question, the plural verb “have” should be used instead of the singular “has.” This is because like the others that had called my attention to it, you have mistakenly perceived “many years of study” as a noun phrase that functions as a subject in that sentence. On closer examination, however, you’ll find that “many years of study” isn’t functioning as a subject at all. It is simply part of the relative clause “that their many years of formal study of English,” and this relative clause is actually a noun clause that serves as the direct object of the verb “discover.” Take note further that in this relative clause, the proper subject is not really “many years” but “formal study of English.” That relative clause as a whole is therefore singular both grammatically and notionally, and as such it demands a verb in the singular form. This is why the correct form of the operative in this case is the singular “has” instead of the plural “have.”

Let’s analyze that sentence much more closely to understand why this is so:

“Many people discover to their dismay that their many years of formal study of English has not given them the proficiency level demanded by the job market, by the various professions, or by higher academic studies.”
 
When that sentence is reduced to its basic grammatical components, which means dropping the phrases “to their dismay” and “many years of” that admittedly obscure its true grammatical structure, it can be clearly seen to have this form:

Many people    discover     that their formal study of English                       
  subject             verb         direct object of verb “discover”

has not given them the proficiency level demanded by the job market, by the various professions, or by higher academic studies.”         
                      predicate complement of the relative clause “that their formal study of English…”
     
We can see that the phrase “that their formal study of English” functions as a direct object—not a subject—because it directly receives the action of the verb “discover,” and the entire remainder of the sentence is simply the predicate complement of the complex sentence. Once this basic structure is understood, it becomes easier to appreciate the fact that the phrase “many years of” is actually functioning only as an adverbial modifier of the noun phrase “formal study of English.” In this sense, “many years” can’t be the true operative noun phrase for the verb form “has not given”; instead, grammatically and structurally speaking, that operative noun phrase is “their formal study of English.”


As I discuss extensively in my forthcoming book, Give Your English the Winning Edge (GYETWE), applying the subject-verb agreement rule isn’t always that simple. This is because aside from ensuring grammatical agreement between verb and subject, English also takes into account notional agreement—or agreement in meaning—between them. Of course, when there’s both grammatical agreement and notional agreement between verb and subject, applying the subject-verb agreement rule is simplicity itself. Such is the case with this simple sentence: “She dances.” Both subject and verb are singular here, so they are grammatically and notionally in agreement.

We all know, however, that grammatical agreement can sometimes take precedence over notional agreement in determining the number to be taken by the verb. Consider these sentences: “Everybody has taken lunch.” “Everyone has finished dinner.” Although the subjects “everybody” and “everyone” are both grammatically singular in form, they are actually plural in meaning, being both notionally similar to the plural “all.” Thus, a strong argument can be made that the nouns “everybody” and “everyone” should use a plural verb. What has evolved as the standard usage in English, however, is that verbs in such cases should agree in number with the singular form of “everybody” or “everyone” and not with its plural meaning. This is why “everybody” and “everyone,” despite their being notionally plural, consistently use the singular “has” instead of the plural “have” in such present-tense constructions.


The subject-verb agreement rule becomes even tougher to apply in constructions where there is strong ambiguity in the choice of the number to be taken by the verb, which is the same reason why my “many years of study” sentence makes some people think it violates the subject-agreement rule. It is in practically the same boat as this other sentence construction: “A wide assortment of dishes [has been/have been] ordered for the party.” Here, of course, the traditional approach is to make the verb agree with the grammatical subject of the sentence, which in this case is the singular noun “assortment,” so the singular verb “has been” becomes the logical choice. However, it can also be convincingly argued that the noun phrase “a wide assortment of dishes,” which is plural in sense, is the proper subject, so the plural “have been” can also be a logical choice. Using the plural verb for such constructions is actually gaining wider acceptance, but the singular verb remains the favored usage—I’m in favor of it myself. What this means is that we can have it either way without messing up our grammar.

I might as well add that there are four other unique situations that can put us in a quandary when applying the subject-verb agreement rule. This rule actually fails when sentences have two subjects, one singular and the other plural, such that the verb can’t agree in number with both of them. Take a look at this sentence: “Either Eduardo or his parents [is/are] responsible for this mess.” Which of the subjects should determine the number of the verb—the singular “Eduardo” or the plural “parents”?

The subject-verb agreement rule isn’t of much help here, so English takes recourse to the so-called “agreement by proximity” rule. This rule says that in the case of compound subjects in “either…or” constructions, the verb should agree in number with the subject closer to it. Thus, by virtue of the proximity of their subjects to the verb, these sentences are both grammatically correct: “Either Armand or his parents are responsible for this mess.” “Either his parents or Armand (himself) is responsible for this mess.”

Another complication to the subject-verb agreement rule arises when a singular subject is followed by the conjoining prepositional phrases “as well as,” “in addition to,” and “along with,” which all serve to add another subject to a sentence. We therefore would expect that the resulting compound subject is a plural one that needs a plural verb. On the contrary, however, the accepted usage is that the verb in such constructions should always be singular: “Rowena as well as Ana commutes to work every day.” “The luggage in addition to his laptop is missing.” “The corner lot along with the four-door apartment is being auctioned off.”

We similarly expect—and rightly so—that an “and” between two subjects is a sure sign of a compound subject needing a plural verb, as in the following sentences: “The car and the motorcycle are brand new.” “Celine and Stella work in the same office.” However, there are instances when the notional sense of unity between two subjects can actually prevail over grammatical agreement, such that the compound subject—although plural in form—takes a singular verb: “Her name and telephone number is [instead of “are”] scribbled on the address book.” “My better half and only love is with me today.” “The long and the short of it is that we got married.”

One other grammar situation where the subject-verb agreement rule often proves difficult to apply is when the subject involves expressions that use the word “number,” as in this sentence: “A small number of stockholders [is/are] unhappy with how we run the company.” Should the verb be singular or plural?

The general rule is that when the expression is “a number of…” and its intended sense is “some,” “few,” or “many,” the verb should take the plural: “A small number of stockholders are unhappy with how we run the company.” On the other hand, when the expression is “the number of…”, the verb always takes the singular because here, “number” is being used to express a literal sum, which is singular in sense: “The number of seminar participants is bigger today than last time.” “The number of absentees in your class is very disturbing.”

I hope this explanation has fully clarified what looked like a subject-verb disagreement in that sentence of mine that you had called into question. 

I will answer your second question in a separate posting.

NOTE: All textual content of the Forum member's question and of my answer are verbatim as originally posted in 2009. The graphic illustrations are recent additions (July 16, 2017) to further clarify the major points in the discussions.
« Last Edit: December 27, 2023, 02:52:49 PM by Joe Carillo »

maxsims

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #1 on: May 20, 2009, 11:35:11 AM »
I am obliged to agree with you....!   

madraskar76

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #2 on: June 08, 2009, 10:15:04 PM »
Please enlighten me more on the usage of has, have and had.  Is had the past tense of has or have?  Thank you and more power!

Joe Carillo

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #3 on: June 08, 2009, 11:06:20 PM »
Please enlighten me more on the usage of has, have and had.  Is had the past tense of has or have?  Thank you and more power!

The word “have” is the present-tense plural base form of the transitive verb that means “to hold or maintain as possession, privilege, or entitlement” and over a dozen other variations of this meaning. Its usage is as in this sentence, “They have doubts about your idea.”  The verb “has” is its present-tense singular form, as in “Josephine has a new boyfriend.” And, yes, “had” is its past tense form regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural, as in “He had a quarrel with his girlfriend” and “The strangers had guns under their belts.”

“Have,” of course, also functions as a verbal auxiliary. It is used with the past participle to form the present perfect (“She has taken the medicine,” “We have bought the car”), the past perfect (“She had taken the medicine,” “We had bought the car”), and the future perfect (“She will have taken the medicine,” “We will have bought the car”).

maxsims

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #4 on: June 18, 2009, 05:35:31 PM »
    
Site Advisory - 06/09/09
« on: June 09, 2009, 08:17:48 AM »
   Reply with quoteQuote
Recently, there have been a wave of posts in the "Use and Misuse" section of the forum that appear to be advertising. Worse, there were also ones related to adult material.

I trust you are not going to tell us that "a wave of posts" is plural...!       :)

Joe Carillo

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #5 on: June 18, 2009, 06:58:15 PM »
   
Site Advisory - 06/09/09
« on: June 09, 2009, 08:17:48 AM »
   Reply with quoteQuote
Recently, there have been a wave of posts in the "Use and Misuse" section of the forum that appear to be advertising. Worse, there were also ones related to adult material.

I trust you are not going to tell us that "a wave of posts" is plural...!       :)

No, not at all, and sorry about that grammar gaffe! There's absolutely no question that "a wave of posts" is singular, so that sentence should read as follows: "Recently, there have been a wave of posts in the 'Use and Misuse' section of the forum that appear to be advertising." I have to tell my webmaster to brush up on his subject-verb agreement skills. (You see, Max, this site's webmaster and its universal moderator--me--are actually two different persons.)

maxsims

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #6 on: June 18, 2009, 07:40:19 PM »
Joe, you want to try that again?
 :o

Joe Carillo

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #7 on: June 18, 2009, 10:48:14 PM »
Joe, you want to try that again?
 :o

Yes, Max, thanks for the follow-through. Sorry for the grammar oversight, which is mine this time. That corrected sentence should read: "Recently, there has been a wave of posts in the 'Use and Misuse' section of the forum that appear to be advertising." I overlooked putting the incorrect verb "have" after the expletive "there" into its plural form "has," which should be the case because its referent, "a wave of posts," is singular. It looks like I also have to brush up on my editing skills.

jciadmin

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #8 on: June 21, 2009, 02:41:16 PM »
I apologize for my oversight. I'll try to avoid those kinds of errors in the future.

maxsims

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #9 on: June 21, 2009, 08:09:19 PM »
...those kinds of errors...

Joe will (probably) tell you that you should have said, .."that kind of error"...!

And Joe may like to comment on this type of phrase and the tendency of people to put both nouns in the plural.

Joe Carillo

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #10 on: June 22, 2009, 12:05:43 AM »
...those kinds of errors...

Joe will (probably) tell you that you should have said, .."that kind of error"...!

And Joe may like to comment on this type of phrase and the tendency of people to put both nouns in the plural.

Let's examine the original passage to see if "those kinds of errors" or "that kind of error" should apply here:

"Recently, there have been a wave of posts in the 'Use and Misuse' section of the forum that appear to be advertising. Worse, there were also ones related to adult material."

We can see that since the operative subject is the singular "a wave of posts," there are actually two grammatical errors in the sentence above: "there have been"--which should be the singular form "there has been" instead--and "that appear"--which should be the singular form "that appears" instead.

I would say that these are two distinct and separate types of errors: the first being the wrong choice of verb form to go with the expletive "there," and the second the simple subject-verb disagreement error between the singular "wave" and the plural verb-form "appear." From the standpoint of the one who committed these errors, using the phrase "those kinds of errors" to refer to them would be more appropriate than using the phrase "that kind of error."

From the standpoint of an outside observer, of course, both can be viewed as a subject-verb disagreement error, thus justifying the use of the phrase "that kind of error" to indicate the singular sense.

I therefore think that it's all a matter of point of view.
 

maxsims

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #11 on: June 22, 2009, 07:55:44 AM »
....I would say that these are two distinct and separate types of errors: the first being the wrong choice of verb form to go with the expletive "there," ......      ?

I thought we were all talking about the first subject/verb disagreement only, but never mind.

Joe, you just used "types of errors", the sort of phrase I was asking about.    It seems to me that the plurality intended is given by "types", so there is no need to pluralise "error".    I know it is common, but is it right?

Joe Carillo

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #12 on: June 22, 2009, 11:04:31 AM »
....I would say that these are two distinct and separate types of errors: the first being the wrong choice of verb form to go with the expletive "there," ......      ?

I thought we were all talking about the first subject/verb disagreement only, but never mind.

Joe, you just used "types of errors", the sort of phrase I was asking about.    It seems to me that the plurality intended is given by "types", so there is no need to pluralise "error".    I know it is common, but is it right?

Both "types of errors" and "types of error" are correct, acceptable usage. Since this might remain debatable, though, I'll take recourse to Google as referee: there are 1,010,000 citations for "types of errors" against 1,180,000 for "types of error." Statistically, that looks like a tie to me. :-*

Spreen

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #13 on: June 22, 2009, 04:35:49 PM »
 :) ;) :D. Wan mei (Perfect)!
« Last Edit: June 22, 2009, 04:41:52 PM by Reagan »

maxsims

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Re: On the subject-verb agreement question
« Reply #14 on: June 22, 2009, 05:27:02 PM »
Joe,

Here's a good one.    I encountered it in Fowler's "The King's English" (via your website).


...The sheil of Ravensnuik was, for the present at least, at his disposal; the foreman or 'grieve' at the Home Farm was anxious to be friendly. But even if he lost that place, Dan Weir knew that there was plenty of others...

Was plenty of others....?

I flew to my two dictionaries (one British, one American, both ancient) and lo!     Both had "plenty" as singular.

Before I take your advice and buy a modern dictionary, what does your Merriam-Webster say?