Singular advice on getting your verbs and subjects to agree

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 11, 2012 - 3:32 PM

Making verbs agree with their subjects can be tricky.

Mary, who was "trying to settle an argument," wrote to ask which of the following was correct: "One and one is (or are?) two. Two and two is (or are?) four. And why?"

It seems like such a simple question, but it's not.

Compound subjects generally take plural verbs, as in "The table and clock were purchased online." When the two parts represent a unit, however, they take a singular verb, as in "Profit and loss is important to every company." So, assuming the math is right, it should be "One and one is two."

I hope that settles the argument.

Norman wrote to ask, "What happened to the 'none is singular' rule?"

As an example of incorrect usage, he cited the following sentence I quoted from another reader: "You're in good company since none of your fellow 'journalists' recall their fifth-grade grammar lessons either." (I hasten to add that this reader was not addressing me directly, although I confess I may be guilty by association.)

Norman is right -- or at least partly right. Traditional grammarians maintain that none takes a singular verb (a usage that I myself prefer). The American Heritage Dictionary, however, offers this helpful note:

"The word [none] has been used as both a singular and a plural noun from Old English onward. The plural usage appears in the King James Bible as well as the works of John Dryden and Edmund Burke and is widespread in the works of respectable writers today."

But in certain instances, the note continues, the plural is the better choice. When none is modified by almost, for example, "it is difficult to avoid treating the word as a plural, as in "Almost none of the officials were (not was) interviewed by the committee." Sometimes, the note concludes, "none can only be plural," as in sentences such as "None but his most loyal supporters believe (not believes) his story."

Al wrote, "I'm stumped on proper verb use here. Is this correct: 'Is everyone and everything pretty much in sync with the organization's stated direction?' Or is it 'Are everyone and everything ... ?'"

Again, the answer is not as clear-cut as one might expect.

William Sabin's "The Gregg Reference Manual" offers the following advice: "When the subject consists of a series of singular nouns ... there is or here is usually sounds more idiomatic (despite the fact that the subject is plural) than there are or here are," as in "Within a mile of the airport there is a full-service hotel and a motel."

Sabin's reasoning: "There is is understood to be repeated" before the second subject.

Extrapolating from Sabin's advice, I would recommend using the singular in Al's example because "Is everyone and everything pretty much in sync?" sounds more idiomatic than "Are everyone and everything pretty much in sync?"

When I offered this explanation to Al, he replied, "Thank you. It's good to know I'm idiomatic rather than idiotic."

Clever guy.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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