5 Errors in Noun-Verb Agreement

By Mark Nichol

As shown in the examples below, when writers craft sentences with more than one noun or pronoun in the subject, they sometimes misidentify the key noun or pronoun and assign the wrong verb form to it. Discussion and revision in each sentence describes and solves the problem.

1. “Five days are too short for a vacation.”

The singular form of the verb “to be,” rather than the plural form, is appropriate here because of the context—the writer is referring to a collective unit of time consisting of five days, not to five units of time consisting of a day each: “Five days is too short for a vacation.”

2. Which of the following statements best describe your situation?

The verb in this sentence refers not to statements but to one of several statements—represented by the pronoun which—each of which is, in turn, being contemplated on its own, so the verb form should be singular: “Which of the following statements best describes your situation?”

3. Each of the top five priorities identified this year are technology related. 

Just as in the previous example, the first word in this sentence is a place-holder representing one priority. The five priorities are being considered in isolation, one at a time, so a singular verb is appropriate: “Each of the top five priorities identified this year is technology related.”

4. We believe that a diversity among people and perspectives create high-performing organizations.

Diversity, not the combination of “people and perspectives,” is the operative noun here, so the verb form should be singular: “We believe that a diversity among people and perspectives creates high-performing organizations.”

5. A combination of these factors, along with a number of wider digital transformation and economic trends, have focused attention on regulatory technology as a topic.

Combination, not factors, is the noun that the helping verb is associated with (and the parenthetical phrase located between factors and the verb is irrelevant to the verb form): “A combination of these factors, along with a number of wider digital transformation and economic trends, has focused attention on regulatory technology as a topic.”

Some people may disagree, arguing that combination, like descriptive words such as couple, majority, and variety, calls for notional agreement (or notional concord), in which plural nouns that modifying phrases that include collective nouns are associated with, rather than the collective nouns themselves, are considered the “target” of the verb. However, usage strongly favors singular concord, in which the verb concords, or agrees, with the collective noun (the “notion”).

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3 Responses to “5 Errors in Noun-Verb Agreement”

  • Dale A. Wood

    This is very good!
    Once again, you have stumbled upon a difference between British English, which is loose about such things, and American English, which is precise. (I believe that part of this stems from the influence of all of the many German-speaking immigrants whom we received from Continental Europe. They wanted to speak English like the earlier arrivals, but they made it more precise.)
    British English abounds with statements like “the couple are”, “the couple were”, “the combination are”, “the combination were”, “the family are”, “the family were”, “the staff are”, “the staff were”. Among other things, Britons seem to be unwilling to write “the members of the staff are”, “the members of the team are”, “the crewmen are”, and “the units of the RAF are”. (Would you believe “the RAF are” and “the Royal Navy are?”)
    At least, a Briton told me that he had never seen or heard “the Commonwealth are”, and personally I have never seen or heard “NATO are”.
    By the way, the word “crewmen” is all-encompassing of males and females, because in cases like this “men” is short for “human beings” or “people”.
    It is really outrageous to hear someone on TV say “spokesperson”, when that person, a man or a woman, is either standing right there, or is well known. In that case, the word is either “spokesman” or “spokeswoman”. I am only ascribe the failure to do so as “mental rot”, or as the British say, “tommyrot”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The statement “Five days is too short for a vacation,” follows the general rule for measurements, time, and other such quantities, whether discrete or continuous. These are singular things.
    100 kilometers is a long way to run. 50 miles is a high altitude to fly.
    Two gallons of beer is way too much to drink at one sitting!
    750 milliliters of bourbon is too much to drink in a day! You have become a sot!
    17 grams of ice cream is too little to bother with. Give it to the cat!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Correction: I can only ascribe the failure to do so as “mental rot”, or as the British say, “tommyrot”.

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