September 01, 2017

The Last Word: The Fixed Rules and How to Avoid Violating Them

The rule seems simple: If the subject of the clause is singular, use a singular verb; if the subject is plural, use a plural verb. But if this rule is so simple, why do most documents contain violations of it? Generally, mistakes stem from clauses inserted between the subject and the verb that confuse the writer. Also, it may not be easy to determine whether the subject of the clause is singular or plural—there might not be a fixed rule. Let’s examine the fixed rules and the confusing variations.

The Fixed Rules and How to Avoid Violating Them

To avoid the most common errors, ignore all words and phrases that appear between the subject and the verb. In the sentence, “The group of exercise machines in Tenant’s gyms include elliptical torture machines,” the writer has been misled by exercise machines and gyms. The writer should have stricken (mentally) the clauses between the singular subject, group, and its verb, include, to correctly write, “The group includes.” Only by consciously identifying the subject of each sentence and confirming that the verb agrees can a writer avoid this error. In this case, proper editing would also have deleted group of completely, moving to a plural verb and leaving the more natural, “The exercise machines include.”

Here are a few of the more fixed rules:

  • Each, either, everyone, everybody, neither, nobody, and someone always take a singular verb; for example, “Each of the gym’s patrons sweats.”
  • None is singular when it means “no one,” but it might be plural when it means more than one person or thing: “None of the machines is easy,” but “None but the strong work out.”
  • Two nouns joined by and—compound subjects—are plural most of the time: “Cardio and weight lifting benefit gym sufferers.”
  • When a singular word is the subject of the sentence, this subject is not transformed into a compound subject requiring a plural verb by the addition of other nouns introduced by as well as, in addition to, together with, except, and no less than: “Candy, as well as soda, makes gyms necessary.”

See William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 9–10 (4th ed. 2000).

Some of these rules, particularly the last one, may not seem natural—I often find myself tempted to use a plural verb with as well as and in addition to. And there are situations in which following fixed rules results in an awkward sentence. For example, when the subject is a series of singular and plural nouns joined by or (a disjunctive series), the nuns taught me to match the verb to the number of the last word in the series, and Prof. Garner agrees. Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 841 (2d ed. 1995). But this rule often leads to awkward sentences like, “Endless workouts or a better diet assists fitness.” In this situation, the writer should rephrase: “Endless workouts or a better diet will assist fitness.” See H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 389 (David Crystal ed. 2009).

The Tricky Bits

Unfortunately for those of us who want easy-to-follow rules, not all subjects are easily characterized as singular or plural. Sometimes a writer must actually use discretion in deciding whether to use a singular verb or a plural one—horrors!

Some nouns that appear plural are generally treated as singular; as examples, Strunk and White list politics and headquarters. Strunk & White, supra, at 11. Americans also tend to use a singular verb for plural nouns that express a larger measurement: “Thirty minutes is the limit of my exercise endurance.” Garner, supra, at 842.

Some nouns that look plural but that mean a single thing are treated as plural: premises is a case in point. Prof. Garner decrees that premises always takes a plural verb. Id. at 685.

Real thought (arghhh!) is sometimes required for compound subjects—when they mean a single idea, they may require a singular verb. As examples, Strunk and White cite common phrases (clichés) like bread and butter and give and take. Strunk & White, supra, at 10.

Particularly in British English, some nouns, called “nouns of multitude” by Fowler, can be treated as either singular or plural, depending on their meaning. Fowler, supra, at 390. This means that army might have a singular verb if it means the institution, but a plural verb if it means the soldiers in the army: “the army are physically fit.” Id. This plural usage seems to be creeping into American English, and I blame British sports commentators: “The side were not fit and were defeated.” Globalization! Even Fowler acknowledges that it’s more foolproof to match the noun to its customary verb number. Id. at 390.

Whether the writer relies on a fixed rule or a variation, the writer must at least know these rules, then proofread and edit to apply them correctly. Most importantly, the writer must consciously separate the subject and the verb from the surrounding clauses, and in some cases actually think about the subject’s meaning, to achieve consistent subject-verb agreement. n