Word Matters Podcast

All About Subject-Verb Agreement

Word Matters, Episode 52

word matters podcast logo

Most of the time, the subject of a sentence and its verb get along just fine. But when they don't, they can be just a tiny bit... wildly confusing. We'll try to clear up the trickiest subject-verb situations for you.

Download the episode here.


Neil Serven: ... but there are times when the determination for what counts as agreement is not as obvious, because what sounds like a singular noun is really plural or what sounds like a plural noun is essentially singular, depending on how it's constructed.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: when the grammar of subject verb agreement is muddled by meaning. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Most of the time native speakers have no trouble with their subject verb agreement I am, but we are, but in a number of situations, it's unclear what the verb is supposed to agree with. Is it a parade of revelers was, or a parade of revelers were? Here's Neil Serven with an investigation into just what is going on with those tricky subject-verb cases.

Neil Serven: On the grammatical side of things, we often get questions pertaining to the matter of subject-verb agreement. Now, most English speakers know the basic rules that when you have a subject that is a singular noun, it takes a singular verb. And when you have a subject that is a plural noun, it takes a plural verb. It's corresponding conjugated plurals. So for the singular cat, you would say the cat is in the garage. If there were plural, you would say the cats are in the garage. And the same rule applies when the construction is inverted, there is a cat in the garage, or there are cats in the garage, but there are times when the determination for what counts as agreement is not as obvious, because what sounds like a singular noun is really plural or what sounds like a plural noun is essentially singular depending on how it's constructed.

So when you have a compound or a plural subject that works as a singular unit, sometimes it sounds more natural for that subject to take a singular verb in spite of what the formal rules to the contrary. So for example, you take certain noun phrases that get lumped together. They get considered to be a single unit. And so the verb that agrees with them is conjugated to be singular. So we say "there is leftover macaroni and cheese in the refrigerator." Now macaroni and cheese might sound like a compound plural, but it's really just a singular noun because it's considered one unit. You say "track and field is her favorite sport." You would not say "track and field are her favorite sport" because track and field is considered to be one thing with its own identity.

We follow the same rules when it comes to amounts. When we say $10 is the cost of admission, we would not say $10 are the cost of admission. Is five miles too far to walk? We would say two plus three makes five. We would also use it for nouns that are spelled as plurals, but sort of represents something that is identified as a singular nature. So we say "politics is best not discussed at the dinner table" or "simple economics determine how much something costs." Economics and politics are considered singular nouns.

But then we get into constructions, like a quantity of nouns, a batch of nouns, where a collection of something is grouped into a singular. So how do you conjugate? Do you conjugate the verb to agree with the mass grouping or its individual members? Do you say there was a family of cats in the garage? Or do you say there were a family of cats in the garage? Do you say a parade of revelers was approaching or a parade of revelers were approaching? Do either of you have opinions on this?

Ammon Shea: Is rephrase an option?

Neil Serven: No.

Ammon Shea: Okay.

Neil Serven: No, no. For this quiz, it is not an option then.

Ammon Shea: Emily?

Emily Brewster: Oh, no, it's a quiz. There was a lot there. There's a lot there. First of all, I think it's really remarkable that for the most part native speakers don't question which verb we will use. I think that's very fascinating. Even though macaroni is indeed plural, so macaroni and cheese... Macarono, I think would be if it were a singular, is that right?

Neil Serven: That is true. Yes.

Emily Brewster: Macarono and cheese, just one lonely little tube of pasta. But a parade of revelers, I think I usually say... Let me see. I mean, if I'm writing, that's also different. If I'm writing, I might think about it more. But a parade of revelers... Oh gosh, I don't know which one. It's a parade of revelers was approaching. Yeah. I think I might say a parade of revelers was approaching. I think native speakers might say either one. In the case of a parade of revelers was approaching, the parade is being understood in my brain as the subject of the verb.

Neil Serven: Right. There's really no correct answer to this. And there's justifications for both responses. You can say a parade of revelers was, or a parade of revelers were approaching. And the justification for parade follows the logic of rules that we know. Parade is the subject of the sentence. It is singular. Was then is the proper verb to agree with it. But the justification behind a parade of revelers were approaching follows what is called notional agreement. And that is because when you have a subject or a subject phrase that connotes a certain singular or plural, even if it's grammatically not a singular or a plural, it can be justified to then use the verb that agrees with what is suggested.

So it works better in the reverse when you say there was a parade of revelers approaching or a parade of revelers were approaching. And it also works with different group nouns when you say a family, a crew, a mob, a generation, a committee. Even if you don't have that noun of members construction going on, you could say the crew were preparing for the launch. Crew is a singular noun, but it implies plural membership.

Emily Brewster: I feel like that is a construction that I've been hearing increasingly in American English, but that I associate with British English.

Neil Serven: Really?

Emily Brewster: Yeah. A crew, I think that historically English speakers were more likely to say the crew was readying the ship for launch, as opposed to the crew were. Do you all have that same sense?

Ammon Shea: Yes. I agree.

Emily Brewster: I think it's been influenced by the British use of, especially with team. In British English team is universally understood as being comprised of members.

Neil Serven: Right.

Emily Brewster: So it always takes a plural verb. And I think in the past 15 years I've been hearing English newscasters also using the plural verb.

Neil Serven: That's interesting to me because I think I hear team is getting ready for the game sounds right to me. And the team are getting ready for the game doesn't. It feels like it needs a little extra effort.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. I feel the same way, but I think that the trend in American English is the team is going toward, the team are getting ready. I also am thinking again about the parade of revelers and realizing that if I changed the word revelers to a noun that's more familiar, I think my answer is different. Like a bunch of kids are coming down the street. I think I'd go with are.

Neil Serven: I think it varies. I think a parade will be different than a bunch.

Emily Brewster: Oh, good point.

Ammon Shea: Interesting.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Yep. And why is that?

Neil Serven: Some have explained that it depends on whether you want the union of the group emphasized or if you want the individuality of the members emphasized.

Emily Brewster: I love that this all happens unconsciously.

Neil Serven: Right.

Emily Brewster: I think it's so interesting that the speakers just make these choices all the time. And we do not think about them.

Neil Serven: Yeah. It's one of those things we literally play by ear. We kind of go by what sounds right. Sometimes people will look at a written sentence and say, that doesn't look right to me. And it's talking about spelling or perhaps word order, but with subject verb agreement, people tend to want to trust their ears.

Ammon Shea: Right. Like a school of fish was approaching the boat sounds very natural. A school of fish where approaching the boat sounds entirely abnormal to me.

Neil Serven: True. Yes.well, you also have the issue of the, not a mass noun, but an animal grouping that doesn't get-

Ammon Shea: Right.

Neil Serven: Fishes is sort of its own thing.

Emily Brewster: We'll be back after the break with more on subject verb agreement. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the definition and history of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Neil Serven: So the other principle that sort of gets invoked when we are making these decisions is what is called the principle of proximity. And that is by choosing the verb that agrees with the element of the subject that is closest to the verb. So when you want to hear a parade of revelers were approaching, you're hearing that S at the end of revelers, and that's why you want that noun to then agree with the verb you're selecting afterward. And so sometimes when you have a simple compound noun, like my aunt or two uncles are coming to the house, right? So for or we would usually want a singular verb to agree with one or the other, if they were both singular, but because uncles is closer, we are using the principle of proximity and we would conjugate the verb to then agree with that second element, which is then closer to the verb. Another noun that's used similarly is the SAT favorite word plethora. Now plethora originated in English as a medical term, referring to a condition marked by an excess volume of blood or other bodily fluid associated with swelling and redness.

Emily Brewster: Really?

Neil Serven: Yes. In that medical use, it could appear as a singular noun or as a non-count mass noun. You can have a plethora or you could have plethora.

Emily Brewster: God help you if you had either.

Neil Serven: Right. We now hear plethora, usually as this unspecified, maybe often hefty quantity, it was given a plethora of excuses. And in that use in edited text, it sees use with both singular and plural verbs. In the New York Times, we have these options still exist, but now it is the sheer plethora of images of art objects that dominates along with a seamless movement among them. And yet it is not just regulars that have slowed Uber down in Europe, over the years, a plethora of European competitors have emerged. And that's on forbes.com May 2019. That example seems to be using the principle of proximity because competitors then agrees with have.

Emily Brewster: And I have to wonder what the choice of the original writer was because an editor may have tinkered with either construction.

Neil Serven: It certainly could have. It might've been different to the writer's ear when they started. And then the editor then saw that competitors was in front of the verb and then chose to use the principle of proximity and then gave it the plural verb. But oftentimes this is all just about context and what sounds right. So when you say the pair was leaving in a gray car, or the pair was leaving in a gray car, or the pair of were living in a gray car, sometimes you want to emphasize the individuality of the members of the group. And sometimes you don't. And oftentimes the verb can help you do that.

Ammon Shea: I have to confess that when you said the pair was leaving in a gray car, I really thought about a fruit animating itself, stepping into a snazzy Jaguar or something and motoring off into the sunset.

Neil Serven: Was it a Bosc or an Anjou?

Ammon Shea: It was a pear of indeterminate origin?

Emily Brewster: This episode was recorded a few weeks before Neil announced that he'd be leaving Merriam-Webster to pursue other opportunities, including the opportunity to finish a novel he's been working on. We're grateful to Neil for being a superb colleague and friend, and we'll miss his presence on Word Matters. Thanks, Neil. Best of luck to you and keep in touch.

Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and Neil Serven, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!