“Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” Amos 3:3
When my first daughter turned two, she insisted on choosing her own clothes. I moved her pants and shirts into the two bottom dresser drawers, and she put a lot of time into her daily ensemble decisions. Sometimes the outfits matched, and some days they didn’t. I never told her a choice was not so great, but I praised her for the better ones. No matter my personal preferences, I determined to celebrate her own sense of style. She wore what made her happy.
Although people everywhere have their own unique language patterns, a good writer doesn’t always have the same kind of freedom to mix and match words. Effective writers aim for clarity in communication above all else. Unless working with colloquial dialogue in a story, writers should consistently exemplify correct grammar for optimum reader comprehension.
One of the grammar rules that some people tend to skip over is subject-verb agreement. That is, using the singular verb form for a singular subject, and a plural verb form for a plural subject. This may sound like a “well, duh” point, but a lot of people routinely ignore it.
Let’s look at an example. Either my mother or my father (is, are) coming to the meeting. Which verb is correct? A lot of my high school students choose “are” as the answer, because they see two subjects – mother and father. But a closer look reveals that the subject is a choice between the two subjects. When in doubt, split them up to make sure. Either my mother is coming, or my father is coming. In this sentence, “is” is the correct verb, because the subject is deceptively singular.
In the case of a sentence like “Annie and her brothers are at school,” the verb “are” is correct because the sentence has a compound subject: Annie and her brothers.
Here’s another example: One of my sisters (is, are) graduating from college. The plural word “sisters” tricks some people into opting for the plural verb “are,” but the actual subject is “one.” The phrase “of my sisters” is a modifier describing which “one” we’re talking about. A singular subject requires a singular verb, so the correct sentence is “One of my sisters is graduating…”
The same goes for this sentence: Every one of these books (is, are) fiction. In this sentence, also, the subject is “one,” and “of these books” is a phrase describing the “one.” If the verb form is in question, remove the modifying phrase (of these books) to help clarify the subject: Every one is fiction.
Let’s check out another kind of example before heading to the practice section. Some words imply plural parts, but the complete whole is a singular unit. These include words like family, organization, team, or committee. The committee (submit, submits) a report to the CEO. Although a committee is composed of multiple members, it is itself a singular unit. A committee is an “it,” not a “them.” So for subject-verb agreement, this sentence would correctly read “The committee submits a report…” To use a plural verb, you’d have to break down the committee into parts: The committee members submit a report. In that case, committee would be the modifier that describes who the members are, and members would be the plural subject.
This principle holds true for plural words that function as singular subjects. In the sentence “Civics is Jane’s favorite school subject,” the word civics is plural, but it is a singular subject in the sentence because it is the name of a whole field of study. Another example of this would be “Is the news on at five or six?” News is plural, but encompasses a TV broadcast as a unit, so it is treated as a singular subject.
Are your brains feeling scrambled yet? Might as well press on. Try your hand at these sentences. I’ll include the answers at the end:
1. Either my backpack or your coat (is, are) always on the floor.
2. Either answer (is, are) acceptable.
3. The whole family (go, goes) to church every Sunday.
4. The movie, including all the previews, (take, takes) about two hours to watch.
5. The team (want, wants) new uniforms.
6. George and Tamara (doesn’t, don’t) want to see that movie.
7. The administration regularly (discuss, discusses) department reorganizations.
8. Every one of the athletes (play, plays) multiple positions.
9. The committee (debates, debate) these questions carefully.
10. All of the CDs, even the scratched one, (is, are) in this case.
Did you find these pretty easy? Compare your answers to these: 1) is; 2) is; 3) goes; 4) takes; 5) wants; 6) don’t; 7) discusses; 8) plays; 9) debates; 10) are
Let me know if you have any questions about this or other exercises.