Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Steeling ourselves against common subject-verb disagreement pitfalls

In last week’s edition of My Media English Watch, I reported this very serious grammar faux pas—a Facebook friend of mine called it an “epic fail”—in the front-page headline story of one of the leading Metro Manila broadsheets: “The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines on Wednesday reminded President Aquino III that providing contraceptives to poor couples who opt for artificial birth control face excommunication from the church.” (Italicization mine).

I already did a detailed grammar postmortem of that sentence in the Forum, including an analysis of the egregious subject-verb disagreement in its subordinate clause, but I think it would be worthwhile for Forum members to steel themselves once and for all against such subject-verb agreement pitfalls. I therefore decided to post in this week’s Forum an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in May last year, “Common subject-verb agreement pitfalls,” where I explained why both native and nonnative English speakers often commit such errors and how we can methodically avoid committing them.  

Here now for your continuing guidance is that essay (October 9, 2010).

Common subject-verb agreement pitfalls

A Baguio City-based reader, Dr. Antonio Bautista, raised the following interesting question about subject-verb agreement sometime ago.

Which one is correct, he asked, “The plural of nouns are formed in a number of different ways,” or “The plural of nouns is formed in a number of different ways”? And could you say, “The plurals of nouns are formed in a number of different ways”? The first is a direct quote from a book entitled Master English Grammar in 28 Days.

In my reply to Tony, I said that the first sentence is grammatically incorrect. The operative subject of the sentence is the singular noun “plural,” not the plural noun “nouns,” so the operative verb should be “is,” not “are.” The second sentence is the correct one. The third sentence is also grammatically correct because the plural-form verb “are” agrees in number with the plural noun “plurals.” (I must note belatedly, however, that the concept of “the plural of nouns” being notionally singular, it is more advisable to always treat it as grammatically singular—without the “s” in “plural.” Indeed, strictly speaking, the plurality of nouns as a concept is inherently singular.)    

The basic English grammar rule that applies here is, of course, that the verb should always agree in number with its subject: it should take the singular form when the subject is singular, and the plural form when the subject is plural. Quite often, though, this rule gets violated when the operative verb of a sentence is not close to its subject. Indeed, the farther they are from each other, the harder it is to figure out whether to use the singular or plural form of the verb.

This is what happened in that grammatically flawed sentence Tony sent in for analysis. The author was apparently distracted by the words “of nouns” separating the verb “are formed” from its true subject, the noun “plural,” which he must have thought was an adjective. In fact, it was being used as a noun for the form denoting “more than one.”

To avoid this very common grammatical error, we need to more closely inspect the form of the subject in a sentence before deciding whether it is singular or plural. As we all know, a multiword subject in a sentence typically takes any of three forms: noun phrase, gerund phrase, or infinitive phrase.

If the subject is a noun phrase, we need to figure out first which word in it is the operative noun; we shouldn’t be distracted by other nouns that may intrude in the phrase. For instance, in this sentence, “The lingering dispute between the second cousins [is, are] getting worse with each passing day,” the noun “second cousins” gets in the way between the verb and the noun “dispute.” It is clear, though, that the subject of the sentence, the noun phrase “the lingering dispute between the second cousins,” is singular, so the verb form should also be singular: “is getting.”

If the subject of a sentence is a gerund phrase, it is always singular no matter how long the modifying phrase that follows it might be. For instance, in this sentence, “Looking for my friend at the churchyard among the thousands of kneeling devotees [was, were] like looking for a needle in a haystack,” the singular “was” is the correct choice. This is because the gerund phrase “looking for my friend at the churchyard among the thousands of kneeling devotees,” despite its length and long modifier, is undoubtedly singular.
Infinitive phrases, like gerund phrases, are also always singular when used as the subject of a sentence, no matter how long the modifying phrase that follows them might be.

Consider this sentence: “To seek reelection in the face of harsh and widespread criticisms against her many official blunders [does, do] not appeal to the incumbent provincial governor.” The correct choice here is “does” because the infinitive phrase “to seek reelection in the face of harsh and widespread criticisms against her many official blunders,” despite its length and complicating noun phrases, is undoubtedly singular. (May 23, 2009)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 23, 2009, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


  1. From Use & Misuse:

    “... I have had a positive influence and has been helpful to someone else.”

    “... I have had a positive influence and have been helpful to someone else.”

    “What these examples is telling us......”

    What these examples are telling us is that someone who purports be be an expert has no control over his perfect tenses, let alone his subject-verb agreements!

  2. What your comments indicate, Anonymous alias Max Sims (of Australia) alias many other flamer usernames, is that you are an extremely obsessive and neurotically vicious individual who just couldn't let go of little grammatical bones you have stuffed your dirty mouth with. You don't really deserve to be answered and this is the last I'll allow you to continue defacing my blog. My extensive dossier of your flaming activities here and elsewhere is now ready for submission to Optus.net in Australia and the Blogspot.com administrators. So once you get to read this, I'll have you also banned from my blogspot for good.

  3. From Essays:

    "The problem, however, is that through our repeated exposure to these stock phrases, they eventually creep into our own writing and speech without our even knowing it."

    You mean....we don't know what words/phrases we are using? How can that be?

    BTW, you have previously argued against placing a comma before conunctions such as "however". Changed your mind?

  4. From Readings:

    Harper focuses on one very serious aspect of the lawyer bubble in America—the current oversupply of law students against the available legal career openings despite high law-school tuitions.

    High law school tuitions?

    Do you not mean tuition costs?

  5. Since you're so obsessive to hear from me, I'll humor you just this once--after which it will be back to limbo for you, Anonymous aka Max Sims the pernicious flamer. Yes, I meant "high law-school tuitions," not "high law-school tuition costs." You see, things can be expressed in so many ways in English, not just in your hypermyopic way in your neck of the woods. Happy with your crumbs now?

  6. From Facebook:

    “Is my use of the phrase “2,500 cringeworthy English” itself cringeworthy English?”

    Get your subject right! The phrase is certainly cringeworthy, but your USE of it is simply ridiculous.

  7. You should be ashamed of yourself, Anonymous aka Max Sims of Australia aka at least six other usernames, both male and female. Here you are again obsessively nitpicking and muddling a major issue with trivialities, littering this old blogspot of mine with gratuitous comments that aren’t even relevant to the topic of the posting you are appending them to! Have you become so desperate to find an audience for your inanities as to dig for old, buried bones? Aren’t you the same notorious Australian flamer who was banned from Jose Carillo’s English Forum three years ago for assuming so many usernames, both male and female, so you could together gang up on Forum members who dared to disagree with your self-serving ex cathedra pronouncements on English grammar and orthography like the ones you’re foisting above now? Aren’t you the same guy who once gleefully bragged that the op-ed pages of several Australian broadsheets had decided to ban you for daring to show to the world that their writers were hopelessly incompetent in their English usage? If you are, Max Sims, then I wouldn’t waste my time engaging you in any discussion on anything. Stay and get lost in your neck of the woods Down Under. Your inane and self-serving comments are not welcome in this blogspot, in my column, and in my website.

  8. Requiescat in pace, Anonymous aka Max Sims of Australia, the notorious, obnoxious, and obsessive flamer with god knows how many male and female identities! I've just zapped your latest inane grumblings here and I assure you that no post of yours will be published here ever after.

  9. I will just quote verbatim what you posted at 7:51 P.M. today, after which I'll zap it because as usual, you are again littering my column with inanities:

    Anonymous posted this on September 4, 2013 at 7:51 PM:

    "In your context, God is spelt with a cap G. And you a practising Catholic!"

    This latest outburst and presumption of yours, Anonymous aka Max Sims aka whatever, confirms my long-held suspicion that you are wildly, hopelessly insane. You should be confined in a mental institution in Australia to keep the rest of the English-speaking world safe from your madcap self-righteousness about language.

    After this, I'll no longer allow a single word from you--not even a single character--to pollute my blogspot.

    So do yourself a favor by going back to the hole where you came from!