Author Topic: The subject-verb agreement rule isn’t really a fail-safe prescription  (Read 13478 times)

Joe Carillo

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Just when they think they already know the language well enough, learners of English soon discover to their dismay that its most basic grammar rule isn’t exactly fail-safe. There are indeed many situations when the subject-verb agreement rule just won’t hold; contrary to the norm, some evidently plural nouns won’t take the plural form of the verb, while some plural nouns inexplicably demand the singular form of the verb for the sentence to be grammatically correct. What seems to be the problem in such grammar situations?

The problem, of course, is that in some sentences, the form of the verb—whether singular or plural—doesn’t always grammatically and notionally agree with the number of the subject or doer of the action. For instance, the sentence “Everybody has taken lunch” is universally accepted to be grammatically correct,  but the noun “everybody” is actually plural in sense while the verb “has” is grammatically singular in form! When grammar and notion are in conflict, in fact, the subject-verb agreement rule can no longer be automatically and confidently applied.

English actually has several special grammar rules for dealing with such disagreements between notion and grammar, and I discuss them in the essay below, “What do we do when notion and grammar disagree?”, that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in August 2005. I have posted that essay in the Forum for the benefit of those who might still be baffled and hobbled by these grammatical quirks of the language. (June 5, 2010) 

What do we do when notion and grammar disagree?

One of the earliest and most useful grammar rules we learn in English is that a verb should always agree with its subject in both person and number. Stated more simply, singular subjects should take the singular form of the verb and plural subjects should take the plural form of the verb. This is actually an easy rule to follow because in English, in contrast to highly inflected languages such as Spanish and French, verbs in general—with some notable exceptions that include the irregular verb “be”—don’t inflect or change in form to agree with the subject in number.

In fact, it is only in the present tense, third-person singular that English verbs change form to agree with their subject in number. As we all know, this involves adding  “–s” or “–es” to the tail end of the verb: “He speaks.” “She laughs.” “It flies.” In both the first-person and second-person present tense, however, verbs don’t change form at all regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural: “I speak.” “You speak.” “We speak.” “They laugh.” “They [as a plural of “it”] fly.” Of course, verbs do change in form in the past tense, mostly by adding “–ed” at their tail ends, but the number of the subject does not influence the change in any way: “I laughed.” “She laughed.” “It laughed.” “You laughed.” “We laughed.” “They laughed.”

The subject-verb agreement rule is no doubt one of the most important and most pervasive frameworks of English usage, but as most of us know, applying this rule is not 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 is 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 sentence: “She dances.” Both subject and verb are singular here, so they are grammatically and notionally in agreement. When grammar and notion are in conflict, however, the subject-verb agreement rule cannot be as easily and as confidently applied.

One such conflict situation arises when the subject is singular form but plural in meaning, such as “team,” “family,” “electorate,” and certain other nouns denoting a group. Take this sentence: “The team are quarreling among themselves.” At first sight, it looks like a badly constructed sentence because “team” is singular in form, so it stands to reason that the verb shouldn’t be the plural “are” but the singular “is” instead, as in this sentence: “The team is quarreling among itself.” When we examine that sentence closely, however, we find that the word “team” is actually intended to mean its individual members and not the group as a whole, so “team” here definitely has a plural meaning and role. The correct usage is therefore the original plural-verb construction, “The team are quarreling among themselves,” in which there is notional agreement between subject and verb.

In certain other cases, however, grammatical agreement can 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. Take this sentence, for instance: “A wide assortment of dishes has been/have been ordered for the party.” The traditional approach, of course, 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. What this means is that we can have it either way without messing up our grammar.

Now let’s take up four other situations that can put us in a quandary when applying the subject-verb agreement rule.

As many of us no doubt have already encountered, the rule actually fails when sentences have two subjects, one singular and the other plural, such that the verb cannot 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 the plural form of the verb. On the contrary, however, the accepted usage is that the verb in such constructions should be singular in form: “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 the singular form of the 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 form: “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 form 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.” (August 15 and 22, 2005)

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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, August 15 and 22, 2005 issues, © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. This material later appeared in modified form as Chapters 92 and 93 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp.

hill roberts

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Good morning, Joe!

Here are some examples of sentences that vary from one country to another:

-"The Media is wrong in declaring Mr  Moon dead." since "media" is plural, why not "are"? I notice that Filipino journalists always use the singular "is".
In the UK, they'd use "are".
.
-Stadium or stadia - over in Europe, they use this term interchangeably, too although, "...the stadiums are crowded..." is more used by the journalists nowadays.

-"The crew is..." - again, many Filipino journalists use the singular form; in the UK, they use the plural form "...the crew are..."
-"...England  Team are leaving for South Africa..." meaning, the England Team (participating) are leaving for South Africa. The Filipino journalists would have used the singular form, right?
Please enlighten me. Thank you. ;D

Joe Carillo

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The noun “media” can actually be singular or plural depending on the sentence construction. It is singular when it refers to the mass media as a single entity or the totality of the industry, as in “Media loses credibility every time it makes a wildly wrong poll prediction.” It is plural when it refers to the individual media sectors that comprise it, as in “The mass media, particularly print, have lost huge chunks of their audiences to the Internet.” 

To guide us in making an informed choice on the singular or plural use of “media,” I am quoting below the definitions and usage note of the Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary for that word:

Quote
media
Function: noun
Inflected Form: plural medias
Usage: often attributive
Etymology: plural of medium
Date: 1923

1 : a medium of cultivation, conveyance, or expression;  especially   : MEDIUM 2b
2 a singular or plural in construction   : MASS MEDIA  b plural   : members of the mass media
usage The singular media and its plural medias seem to have originated in the field of advertising over 70 years ago; they are apparently still so used without stigma in that specialized field. In most other applications media is used as a plural of medium. The great popularity of the word in references to the agencies of mass communication is leading to the formation of a mass noun, construed as a singular  <there’s no basis for it. You know, the news media gets on to something — Edwin Meese 3d>  <the media is less interested in the party’s policies — James Lewis, Guardian Weekly>. This use is not as well established as the mass-noun use of data and is likely to incur criticism especially in writing.


As to the plural of “stadium,” I personally prefer “stadiums” over “stadia.” I don’t feel comfortable using “stadia”; for some reason, “stadia” sounds effete to me—too weak and too delicate to denote a place where strength is pitted against strength.

Like most Filipino journalists, I look at the noun “crew” as singular, as in “The crew sees that reef every day and is no longer bothered by it.” That sounds perfectly all right with me. Of course, if I want to unmistakably convey the plural sense of the word, I’d say “The members of the crew see that reef every day and are no longer bothered by it.”

As to the British, it’s not surprising that the always treat “crew” as plural. My understanding is that they treat as plural any noun that denotes an organization with several members, like “company” and “corporation,” as in “The company are firmly committed to pursue their joint-venture plans.” This obviously explains why they treat “team” as plural in “England Team are leaving for South Africa” or “England’s Team are leaving for South Africa.” You just have to be really British for that construction not to assail your ears and your grammar sensibility.

ant

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My friend and I were just discussing this, and we remembered an old rule from English class. However, we're not sure if we remember it correctly.

I think it was called the proximity principle. It basically stated that for linking verbs linking two nouns, the verb should follow the subject unless the second noun is closer.

This means that the ff sentences are correct:
All photos are property of WB.
All photos contained herein is property of WB.

Could you please let us know if there is such a rule? We found some pages that agree online but others disagree. Some say it only applies for informal or verbal communication and not for formal or written communication. :-) 

Joe Carillo

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Yes, you’re right, there’s such a rule and it’s commonly known as the “agreement by proximity” rule, but it doesn’t work in exactly the way you described. That rule applies to compound subjects in “either…or” constructions where one of the subjects is in the singular form and the other in the plural form. In such cases, application of the traditional subject-verb agreement rule becomes problematic and can’t be done in a straightforward fashion. English thus takes recourse to the “agreement by proximity rule,” which provides that the form of the verb—meaning whether it should take the singular or plural form—should agree in number with the subject closer to it.

Thus, in a compound subject in the “either…or” form, when the plural noun is more proximate or nearer to the verb, the verb takes the plural form, as in the following example: “Either Arlene or her brothers are capable of running the family corporation.” In contrast, when the plural noun comes ahead of the singular noun, the verb takes the singular form, as in “Either her brothers or Arlene (herself) is capable of running the family corporation.”

As to the two sentences that you presented as examples, they actually don’t have anything to do with the “agreement by proximity” rule. Instead, they are illustrative of the subject-verb agreement rule. The first, “All photos are property of WB,” is grammatically correct because the plural form of the verb, “are,” agrees with the plural subject, “all photos.” The second, “All photos contained herein is property of WB,” is grammatically wrong because the singular form of the verb, “is,” disagrees with the plural subject, the plural noun phrase “all photos contained herein.”

We must always keep in mind that the operative noun in a noun phrase—in this case it is the plural “photos”—is what determines whether the verb will be in the singular or plural form, not any other noun or modifier that may come between that operative noun and the operative verb in the sentence. For instance, in the sentence “The photo collection along the WB corridors is a donation of the American government,” the operative noun in the noun phrase “the photo collection along the WB corridors” is the singular “photo collection,” not the plural “WB corridors,” so the verb is in the singular form “is” instead of the plural form “are.” The “agreement by proximity” rule doesn’t apply in such cases, only in “either…or” constructions as explained earlier.

kanajlo

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Re: The subject-verb agreement rule isn’t really a fail-safe prescription
« Reply #5 on: September 06, 2010, 07:30:42 AM »
I've never heard or read of the plural of "stadum" being expressed as "stadia" in the United States. It would seem as strange to me as to encounter "college campi" instead of "college campuses."

Joe Carillo

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Re: The subject-verb agreement rule isn’t really a fail-safe prescription
« Reply #6 on: September 06, 2010, 08:44:52 AM »
Thanks right! I think it’s because when an “-ium” word like “stadium” is pluralized by changing the word ending to “-ia,” it gives the word a distinct academic sound, as if the speaker is trying to impress you that his or her English is of professorial quality. And I guess this is true whether you are in the United States or any other part of the English-speaking world. This is the problem with so many of these words of Greek extraction. Of course, we can just bear and grin it if the speaker is really a college professor or academician, but if not, an aura of superficiality just seems to surround the word choice. For this reason, kanajlo, you won’t ever catch me pluralizing “podium” to “podia,” “aquarium” to “aquaria,” “colloquium” to “colloquia,” and “condominium” to “condominia.” I’ll just affix an “s” to them anytime and not worry about how I sound to people when I use those words.