How well do you know the rules for subject-verb agreement?
How would you rate your command of English grammar? On a five-point scale, are you (1) very weak, (2) weak, (3) average, (4) strong or (5) exceptional?
Do you have a number or level in mind? Good.
Now let’s see if your self-assessment is accurate. We’ll use your knowledge of the rules of subject-verb agreement as a measure.
The good news about subject-verb agreement is that there is only one basic rule: Verbs must agree in number with their subjects. In other words, singular subjects take singular verbs, and plural subjects take plural verbs. Thus the term “agreement.”
The bad news is that there are hundreds of exceptions and special cases, and those may vary depending on whether you’re (or you are) using informal or formal English, American or British English, an English dialect or sub-dialect, etc.
For example, none and data are considered singular in formal usage, but those words can be either singular or plural in general usage. I’ll use William Sabin’s “The Gregg Reference Manual” as my source for rules and examples.
The five sentences below correspond to our five-point scale. I’ve arranged them by degree of difficulty, with sentence 1 illustrating a better-known rule and sentence 5 illustrating a less well-known rule. In other words, the choices go from more obvious to less obvious.
Here we go. Choose the correct verb in the following sentences:
1. Every computer and printer are/is marked for reduction.
2. Either the credit department or the accounting department has/have the file.
3. Neither the regional manager nor the salesclerks has/have the data you want.
4. This study, in addition to countless others with the same results, reveals/reveal some interesting trends.
5. She is one of those who favors/favor increasing the budget.
Here are the five rules governing your choices:
1. When two or more subjects are preceded by each or every, use a singular verb.
2. If the subject consists of two or more singular words that are connected by either ... or, neither ... nor or not only ... but also, use a singular verb.
3. If the subject consists of both singular and plural words that are connected by either ... or, neither ... nor or not only ... but also, the verb agrees with the nearer part of the subject.
4. Insertions beginning with expressions such as along with, as well as, in addition to, etc., do not affect the verb.
5. The phrases one of those who and one of the things that are followed by plural verbs because the verbs refer to those or things (rather than to one).
In the odd-numbered sentences, the second choice is correct. In the even-numbered sentences, the first choice is correct.
To determine your approximate level of competence, give yourself one point for each correct choice. Alternatively, rank yourself according to the highest sentence number in which you chose correctly. Finally, if you think “There’s many flaws to this assessment” is correct, give yourself a zero.
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.