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Verbs Sandwiched Between Singular and Plural Nouns

Dealing with distracting predicate nouns.

By
Bonnie Mills, Writing for,
Episode #183

verbs sandwiched between nous

Today, Bonnie Trenga will help us talk about tricky sentences that make you question whether you should use a singular or plural verb.

Today we’re talking about a tricky kind of sentence that causes you to make a mistake with subject-verb agreement. As we all learned in school, a singular subject agrees with a singular verb, and a plural subject agrees with a plural verb. Sometimes, though, other parts of the sentence get in the way and confuse you. Here's an example of the kind of sentence we’re talking about: “The star attractions at the museum were the art.” Or should it be “The star attractions at the museum was the art”?

Defining Our Problem

Before we can answer the “were” or “was” question in the museum sentence, we need to define the problem. The source of the conundrum is what’s called a distracting predicate noun. A predicate is what provides information about the subject (1). In the museum sentence, the predicate noun is “the art,” a singular word. The subject, “the star attractions,” on the other hand, is plural. So should the verb agree with the subject or the predicate noun?

Solving Our Problem

Although this problem may seem complicated, it’s really not. It’s as simple as this: the verb agrees with the subject (2), not the predicate noun. Therefore, “were” is correct in the museum sentence because the subject is “the star attractions,” a plural noun:

The star attractions in the museum were the art.

Dorothy, don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain, meaning don’t be distracted by the predicate noun. One grammar source calls this problem “false attraction to a predicate noun” (3).

Let’s try out one more example. What’s the right verb here:

The real draw of this restaurant is the desserts.

or

The real draw of this restaurant are the desserts.

Well, you know not to be falsely attracted by “the desserts,” which is the predicate noun. Instead, let’s identify the subject; it’s “the real draw,” which is singular. Therefore, the verb must be “is”:

The real draw of this restaurant is the desserts.

What comes after the “is” doesn’t matter.

Sandwich image, Christian Cable at Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Next: How to Avoid the Problem

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About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.

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