Author Topic: Steeling ourselves against common subject-verb disagreement pitfalls  (Read 11172 times)

Joe Carillo

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In last week’s edition of My Media English Watch, I reported this very serious grammar faux pas—a Facebook friend of mine called it an “epic fail”—in the front-page headline story of one of the leading Metro Manila broadsheets: “The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines on Wednesday reminded President Aquino III that providing contraceptives to poor couples who opt for artificial birth control face excommunication from the church.” (Italicization mine).

I already did a detailed grammar postmortem of that sentence in the Forum, including an analysis of the egregious subject-verb disagreement in its subordinate clause, but I think it would be worthwhile for Forum members to steel themselves once and for all against such subject-verb agreement pitfalls. I therefore decided to post in this week’s Forum an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in May last year, “Common subject-verb agreement pitfalls,” where I explained why both native and nonnative English speakers often commit such errors and how we can methodically avoid committing them. 

Here now for your continuing guidance is that essay (October 9, 2010).

Common subject-verb agreement pitfalls

A Baguio City-based reader, Dr. Antonio Bautista, raised the following interesting question about subject-verb agreement sometime ago.

Which one is correct, he asked, “The plural of nouns are formed in a number of different ways,” or “The plural of nouns is formed in a number of different ways”? And could you say, “The plurals of nouns are formed in a number of different ways”? The first is a direct quote from a book entitled Master English Grammar in 28 Days.

In my reply to Tony, I said that the first sentence is grammatically incorrect. The operative subject of the sentence is the singular noun “plural,” not the plural noun “nouns,” so the operative verb should be “is,” not “are.” The second sentence is the correct one. The third sentence is also grammatically correct because the plural-form verb “are” agrees in number with the plural noun “plurals.” (I must note belatedly, however, that the concept of “the plural of nouns” being notionally singular, it is more advisable to always treat it as grammatically singular—without the “s” in “plural.” Indeed, strictly speaking, the plurality of nouns as a concept is inherently singular.)   

The basic English grammar rule that applies here is, of course, that the verb should always agree in number with its subject: it should take the singular form when the subject is singular, and the plural form when the subject is plural. Quite often, though, this rule gets violated when the operative verb of a sentence is not close to its subject. Indeed, the farther they are from each other, the harder it is to figure out whether to use the singular or plural form of the verb.

This is what happened in that grammatically flawed sentence Tony sent in for analysis. The author was apparently distracted by the words “of nouns” separating the verb “are formed” from its true subject, the noun “plural,” which he must have thought was an adjective. In fact, it was being used as a noun for the form denoting “more than one.”

To avoid this very common grammatical error, we need to more closely inspect the form of the subject in a sentence before deciding whether it is singular or plural. As we all know, a multiword subject in a sentence typically takes any of three forms: noun phrase, gerund phrase, or infinitive phrase.

If the subject is a noun phrase, we need to figure out first which word in it is the operative noun; we shouldn’t be distracted by other nouns that may intrude in the phrase. For instance, in this sentence, “The lingering dispute between the second cousins [is, are] getting worse with each passing day,” the noun “second cousins” gets in the way between the verb and the noun “dispute.” It is clear, though, that the subject of the sentence, the noun phrase “the lingering dispute between the second cousins,” is singular, so the verb form should also be singular: “is getting.”

If the subject of a sentence is a gerund phrase, it is always singular no matter how long the modifying phrase that follows it might be. For instance, in this sentence, “Looking for my friend at the churchyard among the thousands of kneeling devotees [was, were] like looking for a needle in a haystack,” the singular “was” is the correct choice. This is because the gerund phrase “looking for my friend at the churchyard among the thousands of kneeling devotees,” despite its length and long modifier, is undoubtedly singular.
Infinitive phrases, like gerund phrases, are also always singular when used as the subject of a sentence, no matter how long the modifying phrase that follows them might be.

Consider this sentence: “To seek reelection in the face of harsh and widespread criticisms against her many official blunders [does, do] not appeal to the incumbent provincial governor.” The correct choice here is “does” because the infinitive phrase “to seek reelection in the face of harsh and widespread criticisms against her many official blunders,” despite its length and complicating noun phrases, is undoubtedly singular. (May 23, 2009)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 23, 2009, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.