Subject-verb agreement can trip up even professional writers and editors. There’s an error of this type on the back cover of Grammar Girl, and the New York Times recently acknowledged making similar mistakes.
Last week on Monday Morning Grammar, we discussed collective nouns. This week let’s take a step back and review the basics of subject-verb agreement.
Stay in Agreement
Singular nouns require singular verbs, and plural nouns require plural verbs:
Jim rides his bike to school.
The boys take the bus to school.
Last week we discussed collective nouns, which describe a group but act singular. There are also nouns that look plural but are actually singular and so take singular verbs:
Athletics is a popular extracurricular activity for high schoolers.
The measles still endangers many lives.
Other examples of singular nouns that look plural include economics, mathematics, physics, statistics, headquarters, politics, and news.
There are exceptions to this rule, however, when words such as athletics, mathematics, physics, and statistics describe separate items rather than a collective body of knowledge:
The physics of how bees fly seem scientifically impossible.
Don’t Get Distracted by Interruptions
Sometimes a subject and verb are separated in a sentence. A modifier or prepositional phrase, sometimes containing additional nouns, may come between the subject and verb:
The dog at the pound needs a good home.
The fresh herbs at the farmer’s market smell delicious.
Don’t get distracted by these interruptions. To make sure your subject and verb agree, simplify the sentence by removing extra words or phrases until you have just the subject and the verb.
Next week we’ll continue to discuss subject-verb agreement with a post on compound subjects.
Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.
Strunk Jr., William, and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.