Author Topic: On the subject-verb agreement question (A special retrospective)  (Read 9900 times)

Joe Carillo

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On the subject-verb agreement question (A special retrospective)
« on: September 15, 2023, 08:54:46 AM »
For its high instructive value in the subtle and sometimes elusive workings of English grammar, I have decided to copy and repost this May 17, 2009 Forum discussion, "On the subject-verb agreement question," from its tailend position in the Use and Misuse section ( to the present day, September 15, 2023. This makes the discussion more easily and more widely accessible for the benefit of all Forum members, particularly new ones.- Jose Carillo

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?

Maxsims, 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.

Click this link to read the entire thread of wide-ranging discussions in the Forum that followed this posting in May 2009.

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: September 15, 2023, 03:18:00 PM by Joe Carillo »