7 Classes of Noun/Verb Agreement

By Mark Nichol

Below you’ll find seven classes of noun/verb agreement you need to understand.

1. Indefinite Pronouns

Most indefinite pronouns correspond to singular verbs:

“Someone has left her plate on the table.”

“Everybody is entitled to his or her opinion.”

“Each boy is responsible for his actions.”

To confirm, test for the proper verb form by writing a simple sentence in which is follows the pertinent pronoun: “Someone is missing” (not “Someone are missing”).

The proper verb form for some indefinite pronouns depends on the reference:

“All of the soup is gone. (Soup is a single entity.)

“Some of the comments are favorable. (The comments are counted as separate entities.)

The indefinite pronoun none can be singular or plural depending on the context:

“None of the jewels are missing.” (None of the components of the whole entity in question are missing.)

“None of the jewelry is missing.” (Not one part of the whole entity is missing.)

2. Conjunctive Phrases

The simple conjunction and cannot necessarily be replaced by such phrases as “along with,” “as well as,” and “together with”:

“The doe along with its fawns is resting in the meadow.” (This sentence is correct, however, if “along with its fawns” is inserted into the sentence “The doe is resting in the meadow,” which requires bracketing commas. The same is true of the other phrases.)

3. “Either/Or” and “Neither/Nor”

Neither and either refer to two compared or associated objects as individual entities and are therefore usually employed with singular verbs:

“Neither she nor I are ready for that.”

“Either option will work for me.”

Informally, however, an exception is made in such constructions as “Are either of you ready?”

In “either/or” and “neither/nor” constructions with a mixture of singular and plural nouns, the verb form is determined by whether the closest noun is singular or plural:

“Either the captain or one of the lieutenants are leading the patrol.”

“Neither the students nor the teacher remembers hearing anything.”

However, because the plural noun and the singular verb still clash in the second sentence despite their lack of proximity, it is advisable to construct the sentence so that the singular pronoun precedes the plural one:

“Neither the teacher nor the students remember hearing anything.”

4. Positive and Negative Subjects in Combination

A subject consisting of positive and negative sentiments that differ in singular and plural form should be followed by a verb that corresponds with the positive element:

“The delivery of the speech, not its contents, is the issue.”

As with “either/or” and “neither/nor” constructions, perhaps it is best to rearrange the sentence so that the singular noun is in proximity with the verb:

“It is not the contents of the speech, but its delivery, that is at issue.”

5. Expletives

In sentences beginning with such expletives as here and there, the actual subject, which follows the verb, determines the verb form:

“There is a word for that.”

“Here are several choices.”

6. Plural Nouns for Single Objects

Plural nouns that name single objects, such as scissors and pants, are matched with plural verbs unless the phrase “pair of” precedes the noun; in that case, pair is the subject:

“Scissors are dangerous.”

“A pair of scissors is required for this activity.”

Some other nouns ending in s are also singular in meaning:

“The mumps is a disease you don’t hear much about anymore.”

Meanwhile, others stand for a single thing but call for a plural verb:

“Thanks are in order.”

7. Fractional Phrases

Phrases referring to a mathematical portion may, depending on the context, be singular or plural:

“A small percentage of the employees are opposed.”

“A large percentage of the cargo was damaged.”

“Three-fourths of the land is forested.”

“One-third of the trees are oaks.”

Numbers expressed as part of a mathematical operation are linked with a plural verb, but the outcome of a computation is expressed as a single entity:

“Ten and six are added together to equal sixteen.”

“Ten minus six is four.”

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16 Responses to “7 Classes of Noun/Verb Agreement”

  • Joseph

    Nice brush up. Thanks for the article! I haven’t researched grammar in quite a while (since high school in fact). I’m hoping to sharpen this dull blade of a brain 😉

  • Keith

    QUOTE
    In “either/or” and “neither/nor” constructions with a mixture of singular and plural nouns, the verb form is determined by whether the closest noun is singular or plural:

    “Either the captain or one of the lieutenants are leading the patrol.”
    UNQUOTE

    Except in this case it’s “one of the lieutenants”, which is singular, so it should read
    “Either the captain or one of the lieutenants is leading the patrol.”

  • SAM

    I agree with Keith.

    Beyond that, earlier in that section, you wrote:

    “Neither and either refer to two compared or associated objects as individual entities and are therefore usually employed with singular verbs:

    ‘Neither she nor I are ready for that.’

    ‘Either option will work for me.’

    Your second example is completely irrelevant to the point you make. In the future tense, the form of the main verb (heck, the entire verb phrase) doesn’t change in singular and plural situations.

    At the same time, your first example completely contradicts the point you make, unless it’s an illustration of an exception to your “usually employed with singular verbs” statement. But you don’t label it as an exception. More important, however, the example is incorrect: “Neither she…are?” “Nor I are”? To be sure, the example creates an awkward choice: “Neither she nor I is…” or “Neither she nor I am…” I suspect in this instance, it might be best to say “Neither of us is….”

  • Tony Hearn

    This post raises some interesting points, Mark.

    1. ‘All of the soup is gone. (Soup is a single entity.)’ I contend that ‘all’ is in fact adjectival and is not properly followed by ‘of’, though it is increasingly so in casual conversation. ‘of’ is partitive; ‘all’ is inclusive. Hence ‘all the soup’ is more correct than ‘all of the soup’. I contend that, strictly speaking, inclusives such as ‘all’ and ‘both’ can not be followed by ‘of’ and this advice should guide careful writers. While a widespread exception has long been made, however, for ‘all of us/you/them’ (‘and so say all of us’!), this can and preferably then should, be recast, e.g. ‘we all went’, ‘they all fitted in’ in place of ‘all of…’.

    The first examples given under 3) seem to do nothing to enlighten!

    ‘Neither and either refer to two compared or associated objects as individual entities and are therefore usually employed with singular verbs:

    “Neither she nor I are ready for that.”

    But ‘are’ isn’t singular! As it stands the sentence is an example against the advice given! It’s an ugly problem, in any case, and it might be better to try for something like ‘We are not ready for that, neither she nor I’.

    ‘Either option will work for me.’ Oh dear. ‘Will’ does not distinguish between singular and plural! Try something like ‘Either option has an equal chance of success’.

    Under 7): ‘“A small percentage of the employees are opposed.” So am I wrong to prefer what I was taught, namely that the percentage refers to a singular part of the group and so takes a singular verb?

  • Joan

    Thanks, Keith. I was about to suggest the same correction about ‘one of the Lieutenants’. I always tell my students to put the prepositional phrase in such sentences in ( ) and read without it to determine singular or plural verb usage: either…one is leading the patrol.’. Is this not correct?

  • Nora

    Are there words missing from the following?

    2. Conjunctive Phrases

    The simple conjunction and cannot necessarily be replaced by such phrases as “along with,” “as well as,” and “together with”:

  • John White

    Mark: Scratching my head about your section 3, relieved that Keith and SAM don’t agree, either.

    Even if your examples in that section are grammatically correct, the sound of them makes me want to choke a bunny rabbit. I prefer your suggestion of reconstructing the sentence; viz.,

    “Neither she nor I are ready for that.”
    becomes
    “Neither of us is ready for that.”

    In any event, I still want to be like you when I grow up.

  • Mark Nichol

    This ain’t as easy as it looks. Thanks to the following visitors for spurring me to make the following revisions:

    Keith:
    “Either the captain or the lieutenants are responsible, depending on who is on duty at the time.” (This sentence can be hypercorrected to read “. . . or one of the lieutenants is . . .,” but allow me to illustrate my point.)

    Tony:
    “All the soup is gone.” (I generally delete of in this form when I have my editing hat on, but it slipped in while I was in writer mode.)

    Sam, Tony, and John:
    “Neither she nor I is ready for that.”

    “Either the dog or the cat is responsible for this.”

    I want to be like me when I grow up — a more careful me, that is.

  • Mark Nichol

    Nora:

    And should have been italicized to identify the reference as meaning “the word and,” as here.

  • Mark Nichol

    Tony:

    You’re correct about percentage; it’s always singular. I misunderstood some examples I found in my research.

    It is percent that is plural or singular depending on the context:

    “Forty percent of the employees are opposed.” (The employees are numbered.)

    “Forty percent of the cargo was damaged.” (The cargo is a single entity.)

  • Bob Kaplan

    When speaking to a group of people, would we say, “I went to the meeting, but none of you was there”? We would if we consider “none” to be short for “not one” in this case, although it sounds clumsy and ungrammatical.

    Similarly, we might say “none of us was willing to commit to a plan,” which is also correct but sounds somewhat clumsy.

    I’ve never heard of the “whole entity” rule described above. It sounds like an after-the-fact rule to legitimize what was once considered a grammatical error, e.g., “none of you were there.”

  • John

    Why is this post entitle Noun / Verb Agreement when numbers 1 and 3 are about pronouns and number 5 is about expletives? Shouldn’t it be subject / verb agreement?

  • Kathryn

    Bob Kaplan: The entry for “none” in Fowler’s Modern English Usage includes the following: “It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is singular only and must at all costs be followed by singular verbs etc.; the OED explicitly states that plural construction is commoner.”

    Admittedly, I am using the Second Edition (not having access to the First), which was revised by Sir Ernest Gower and copyright 1965, but the first edition of the OED was 1928. At the same time, Strunk’s Elements of Style was written before 1919, and he advocates the “singular verb when the meaning is ‘not one'” rule.

    I am not suggesting that either Fowler/Gower or Strunk & White is authoritative; both are to a degree idiosyncratic. And dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. However, taken together, these three works clearly suggest that “none” has been considered to be either singular or plural depending on context for a very long time by educated English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • David

    Mark, regarding the expletives point, how would you construct sentences using singular words meant to convey plurality? For example:

    There (is/are) a plethora of piñatas in that store.
    There (is/are) a bunch of bears in this forest.
    There (is/are) a pile of children crowding around the author.

    I know each example could be rephrased as “There are many…” but I’d like to employ a bit of linguistic variety.

  • Margaret MS Kirby

    The doe along with its fawns is resting in the meadow.” (This sentence is correct, however, if “along with its fawns” is inserted into the sentence “The doe is resting in the meadow,” which requires bracketing commas. The same is true of the other phrases.)

    Could you please illustrate this with examples.

  • Mark Nichol

    Margaret:

    I simply meant that any such sentence is correct if a nonessential phrase in the midst of a sentence is set off by commas (“The purse, along with a pair of sunglasses, was left on the chair.”). However, “along with” is not a valid substitution for and.

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