Grammar Reference

Subject-Verb Agreement 2

Verbs always agree with the subject noun in a sentence:

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. Collective nouns with both singular and plural.

'The government is debating the new law!' (It...)
'The government are debating the new law!' (They...)

Government is a collective noun and represents a group of people, like police. But unlike police, which is always plural, the choice of singular or plural verb depends on whether you consider the noun to be a group of individuals (e.g. They are debating) or a single unit (e.g. It is debating). Other examples include: family, crew, team, public, jury and committee.

'The whole family are a great bunch of people.' (They...)
'The whole family is a great bunch of people.' (It...)
'The jury haven't yet made a decision.' (They...)
'The jury hasn't yet made a decision.' (It...)
'The team don't have any worthy opponents.' (They...)
'The team doesn't have any worthy opponents.' (It...)

It’s also worth noting that in a relative clause, we use who for the group and which for the unit.

'The government, who are in talks now, are reviewing the law.'
'The government, which is in talks now, is reviewing the law.'
'The family who I met would never act that way.'
'The family which I met would never act that way.'
'The team, which has played so well this season, is in crisis.'
'The team, who have played so well this season, are in crisis.'

2. Quantities & amounts, portions and mathematics.

'3 minutes is perfect for tea.' (It...)
'£100 is a fortune!' (It...)
'24 hours is all I need' (It...)
'26 miles isn't so far!' (It...)

Despite the fact that 3 is a plural number and minutes is a plural noun, the sentence uses a singular verb. This is because, within the context, three minutes is considered to be one unit of time (3 minutes together is enough time to make one cup of tea). This is true for amounts, distances, periods of time, quantities, weights sums of money, etc.

Consider the difference:
There are 60 minutes in an hour. (We are counting the number of individual minutes)
60 minutes is perfect - I can get across town in that. (We are judging the unit of time against what we need to do)

'One of my friends has a Ferrari.' (One...)
'More than one of us is a secret undercover agent.' (One...)

Be careful with expressions with ONE. Even if the noun is plural, we still use a singular verb.

'Half of the cake was eaten.' (...of it...)
'Half of the cakes were eaten.' (...of them...)

Be careful with portions! The noun after‘of’ dictates the verb.

'Two and three is/are five.' (It/ They...)
'Two plus three is five.' (It...)
'Two times three is fifteen.' (It...)
'Two threes are fifteen.' (They..)

When speaking mathematics the verb can be singular or plural. It often depends on the phrasing and speakers will switch between them inconsistently...even in the same sentence!

3. Indefinite nouns.

'Something is coming.' (It...)
'It is making a terrible noise.' 
 is at the door! (He or She...) 
They are knocking loudly.
'Everyone was happy! They were dancing in the streets'
'Nobody knows what to do. They haven't understood fully yet!'

Indefinite nouns take singular nouns. However, when referring to the same person again, we will use the impersonal pronoun theywhich takes a plural verb.

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