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Subject-Verb Agreement

Singulars and plurals don't mix by my long-time copy editor Bonnie Trenga, the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier.

By
Bonnie Trenga Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
April 18, 2008
Episode #103

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Today's topic is subject-verb agreement.

Before we start, I have to correct an error. In one of the Web addresses in last week's podcast I said, "Backslash, backslash," which many of you told me is just plain wrong. So I apologize. There are no backslashes in URLs.

Also see "Retronyms," which covers "backslash."

Now, let's learn now to boost your immunity to the illness that kills your credibility: subject-verb inflammatory disease.

Is Versus Are

hospitalGood grammar instincts never die—even when the grammarian is lying dazed on a hospital gurney. As I was being rolled to the OR early in my copy-editing career, a grammar error jumped out and got me. When I pointed a weak finger and gasped sharply, my husband must have thought I needed more morphine. A blue sign dared to warn: “The use of cell phones and pagers are prohibited.” “Oh,” thought my relieved hubby. “Just a subject-verb agreement problem.”

I don’t have to look far to find agreement mistakes, even when I’m not in copy-editor mode. I was on hold for my doctor’s office the other day and winced when a sincere voice requested, “Your patience and consideration is very much appreciated.” I did not appreciate that at all, and my patience was as sore as my throat.

I suppose I should go easy on these misinformed medical types. After all, they’re interested in healthy organs, not healthy grammar. If you’re a writer type, though, you don’t want to come down with disagreement-itis. This debilitating ailment afflicts even the best writer, so you’re not immune. If you’re in a hurry, you don’t pay enough attention, and that’s when disagreement-itis strikes. It’s a deadly disease because it kills your credibility and makes your readers feel ill. To avoid the threat of a malpractice suit, you need to start exploring the innards of your sentences—stat!

What Is Subject-Verb Agreement?

Before you can do surgery on your writing, though, you need to brush up on your subject-verb anatomy. A singular subject agrees with a singular verb, and a plural subject agrees with a plural verb. A singular subject involves a single item or person: “the rolling gurney” or “a surgical patient.” A plural subject involves more than one item or person: “some badly written hospital signs” or “the shocked copy editors.”

Your subject-verb agreement is most likely fine when the subject is close to the verb, as it is here: “The rolling gurney is about to crash into the unwary sign writer!” The singular subject gurney pairs up with the singular verb is. I’m certain, though, that you sometimes commit a ghastly grammar goof when the subject is far from the verb. Be especially careful of compound subjects, which contain an and. Amnesiac writers forget about the first part of their subject, so they use the wrong verb. This was certainly the problem on Doctor Doofus’ phone system; the compound subject “patience and consideration” belongs with are, not is.

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