Unit 22: Towards Advanced
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Subject-Verb Agreement 3
Verbs always agree with the subject noun in a sentence:
I always go to work early.
She always goes to work early.
We are old.
The house is old.
However, there are many types of noun and noun phrase in English, and it can be difficult to know if a particular noun takes a singular verb (such as DOES / HAS / AM / IS ) or a plural verb (DO / HAVE / ARE). Have a look below for some commonly difficult nouns:
1. And, Or, Neither, Nor.
'The King and Queen are coming!' (They...)
When two nouns are joined with ‘and,’ we use a plural verb. But, when the two objects are so commonly classed together that they become thought of as one unit, we use a singular verb.
'Fish and chips is the best meal a man can have.' (It...)
Or when two nouns refer to the same thing (so be careful!)
'The new CEO and majority shareholder is coming.' (One person - He or She...)
'The new CEO and majority shareholder are coming.' (Two people - They...)
When two singular nouns are joined with ‘or’, we use a singular verb, but if singular and plural nouns join in this way, the verb agrees with the closest noun to it. This is also true with expressions using either/or and neither/nor.
'A pizza or a curry is being delivered.'
'A pizza or 3 curries are being delivered.'
'3 pizzas or a curry is being delivered.' * (This sounds strange because English tends to put the plural last. 'A pizza or 3 curries are being delivered.' is more natural.)
'Either the cat or the dog goes.'
'Either the cat or the dogs go.'
'Neither I nor my family has stolen anything.
'Neither my family nor I have stolen anything.
2: Separated subjects and verbs.
Sometimes in English we separate a subject and verb. This usually happens because of a prepositional phrase, which is used to describe or qualify a noun. They begin with a preposition such as: of, about, with, on, off, above, around, etc. For example:
'This bunch of bananas is ripe'
'These bunches of bananas are ripe.'
'The house down the lane is very cheap.'
'The houses down the road are very cheap.'
'The attitude of the people has remained unchanged.'
'The attitudes of the people have remained unchanged'
This can lead to some very long complicated sentences (although nouns as long as this example are unlikely):
The builder of the house of my family with the blue overalls in the white car on the main road just over the bridge next to the school is a nice man.
Fortunately, the solution is simple! Ignore all the prepositional phrases between the ‘head’ noun and the verb! This tells you which word to make the verb agree with.
'This bunch ______ is ripe'
'These bunches ______ are ripe.'
'The builder ______ is a nice man.'
This is true unless it’s a portion, like ‘half of the cake.’, where the verb agrees with the noun after the 'of' (see Subject Verb Agreement part 2)
3. Singular or plural verb with a cleft sentence.
A cleft sentence is a structure English speakers use to emphasise a particular point. They often, though not always, start with a WH word.
'What really makes me angry is people who throw rubbish on the ground.'
'When I'd really like a holiday is next week!'
'Where he's been is in hospital.'
'The most interesting thing I saw last week was the elephant at the theatre.'
'The biggest mistake I ever made was driving home for Christmas.'
However, cleft sentences often use very large subjects (What really makes me angry) and long complements (people who throw rubbish on the ground) and because of this the verb can agree with the subject or the complement – which means, in the case of a plural complement – the verb is plural.
'What really makes me angry is people who throw rubbish on the ground.' (Verb agrees with subject)
'What really makes me angry are people who throw rubbish on the ground.' (Verb agrees with plural complement)
'The most interesting thing I saw last week was the elephant at the theatre.' (Verb agrees with subject)
'The most interesting thing I saw last week were the elephants at the theatre.' (Verb agrees with plural complement)