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American Grammar Checkup: Subject/Verb Agreement

American Grammar Checkup: Subject/Verb Agreement


Subject Verb
It's been quite a while since I last offered you a quiz, so ...

I hope you knock this one off in a couple of minutes (there are only 5 questions) and know why you chose your answer. It's such a simple concept, but sometimes writers move too fast or maybe they're just confused; either way, sometimes they don't correctly pair the subject with the right verb. (Wait till you see #4 & #5!)

Have fun!

1. One of the secretaries (is/are) proofreading the proposal right now.

2.聽聽Our secretary and treasurer (is/are) Joan Rogers.

3.聽聽The committee (was/were) unable to agree on a new format.

4. Several grapes or one pear (is/are) a healthful snack.

5. One pear or several grapes (is/are) a healthful snack.

Ready for the answers and the reasons? The subject is in bold; the verb is italicized.

1. One of the secretaries (is/are) proofreading the proposal right now.

Although it's tempting to think the secretaries is the subject, as written it's not. The real subject is one. Of course you could write "The secretaries are ..." but that's not how the example is written.

2.聽聽Our secretary and treasurer (is/are) Joan Rogers.

This can be tough, but we just need to remember that a person can fulfill two roles, which is the case here. To check it out, turn it around: Joan Rogers is our secretary and treasurer.

3. 聽The committee (was/were) unable to agree on a new format.

Both are technically correct. The best answer, though, depends on whether you're saying the committee was voting as a unified group, or as a collection of individuals. If as a unified group, the correct answer really is "was," although technically we may use "were" as well, even though it will look strange to many readers.

My suggestion is to add the word "members" if we're focusing on the individuals, which allows an easy choice of "were." The committee members were ...

4. Several grapes or one pear (is/are) a healthful snack.

5. One pear or several grapes (is/are) a healthful snack.

The two above focus on the second half of the subject, the words closer to the verb. Due to the word "or," rather than "and," the subject is NOT a double one and doesn't automatically take a plural verb.

Basic rule: When two subjects are connected with "or" or "nor," the verb always works with the second subject, the part closer to it.

Neither potato chips nor soda (is/are) a healthful snack. Neither soda nor potato chips (is/are) a healthful snack.

And because plural subjects sound better with plural verbs, in this type of sentence the recommendation is to always put the singular subject first and the plural subject second.

So. How did you do? Kudos if you not only got them all (or almost all) right but knew why. That's the secret sauce -- knowing why a sentence is written as it is.

Thoughts on this or any other American grammar issue?






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Relevant Share Comment
As long as it works, Paul \!
#4 and #5 were a revelation to me years ago, Franci\ud83d\udc1dEugenia Hoffman, beBee Brand Ambassador! I had NEVER known that rule. Never. Had no idea, so I doubt I ever wrote a sentence along those lines. And it's one of the few that actually make sense, at least to me. Thanks for your continued support of my efforts here and other platforms; I really appreciate your taking the time to read, comment, and share!
And getting them right is part of the battle, right, John Rylance? The other half is knowing why, so when we're faced with different sentences, we understand what to do with them. Thanks for your support and comment!
And thanks so much for telling me that, Graham\ud83d\udc1d Edwards! I really appreciate knowing I've helped.

John Rylance

3 years ago #3

I got them right, without really understanding why. Now I know. I agree with Pablo. I opt for the version that  doesn't grate for me when I either say it or read it.

Graham馃悵 Edwards

3 years ago #2

You are the best Susan \ud83d\udc1d Rooks, the Grammar Goddess... I learn so much... I got four out of five... well maybe three and a half...
This is very helpful Susan \ud83d\udc1d Rooks, the Grammar Goddess. I can see why there is confusion, especially #'s 4 & 5. Thank you for your clear explanation.

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