Answers to Questions About Subject-Verb Agreement #2

By Mark Nichol

Here are some questions from DailyWritingTips.com readers about subject-verb agreement and my responses.

1. In your post concerning subject-verb agreement, why would you use a singular verb for ten liters of water? “Of water” is a prepositional phrase, and the subject is liters. We have always been taught to ignore the prepositional phrase that modifies the subject when determining agreement.

The sentence I used in this post exemplifies an exception to the rule: When the first noun in a “[noun] of [noun]” phrase is a percentage, distance, fraction, or amount, the verb agrees with the second noun.

2. I have a question about noun-verb agreement in conjunction with and. For example, should a sentence read, “There was no moon and no clouds” or “There were no clouds and no moon”?

Either construction is acceptable; the verb form should agree with the form of the nearest noun. However, “There were no clouds and no moon” is better because the plural form of the verb agrees with both clouds and the combination of “clouds and . . . moon,” so it feels more natural.

3. When I write sums, I normally use plus and equals, but if I use and instead of plus, should I use is, or are, before the sum?

In mathematical equations, when we put two or more numbers through an operation, they are considered a single set. As you note, we use a singular verb — we say or write, for example, “One plus two equals three,” not “One plus two equal three” — so “One plus two is three” is correct.

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11 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Subject-Verb Agreement #2”

  • Qahtan

    Dear sirs,

    Thank you very much for your valuable lectures.

    What verb to be do we use with (data) ? Why ?
    Thanks a lot.

    Sworn translator and judicial expert authorized in translation
    Qahtan Al-Khatib
    Iraq

  • Alice Kemp

    I don’t believe you really answered question #3, in which it was asked if the use of “and” instead of “plus” in a mathematical operation makes a difference in the verb. For example, is “One and two equals three” the correct construction as in “One plus two equals three”?

  • Dale A. Wood

    Sorry, but this statement is not correct: “The sentence I used in this post exemplifies an exception to the rule: When the first noun in a “[noun] of [noun]” phrase is a percentage, distance, fraction, or amount, the verb agrees with the second noun.”
    It does not have anything to do with prepositionsal phrases.
    A percentage, distance, fraction, or amount is just treated as singular in English, flatly. Here are some examples:

    Ten liters is too much beer to drink. This is a sentence with no prepositional phrases in it at all, and we do not say “Ten liters are…”
    Fifty kilometers is a long way to run.
    120 volts is the voltage required by this device, and not 240 volts.
    If 240 volts is applied to this device, then it will catch fire.
    220 yards is the length of a furlong.
    Note that “220 yards are the length of a furlong” is quite incorrect.
    250 meters is a quarter-kilometer.
    D.A.W.

  • Gary K. McCormick

    I agree with Dale A. Wood on the subject of Question #1, but he doesn’t go far enough in his explanation. Examples are fine, but the reason that a singular verb is used in the “ten liters of water” example is that the “ten liters of water” is treated as a singular quantity; that is, you are not talking about ten one-liter quantities of water, you are talking about one quantity of ten liters of water.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Alice Kemp:
    Mr. Nichol stated to use a singular verb, and then he gave the example: “One plus two equals three.”

    “Equals” is a singular verb. In English, and especially in the third-person singular present tense, the singular verbs end in “s”. This might be rather surprising because plural NOUNS generally end in “s”.
    Lots of foreigners whose native language is not English cannot get this straight about the third-person singular.
    The above is true in the indiciative mood and the interrogatory mood. What about the other moods?

    Note that these irregular third-person singular verbs also end in “s” in the present tense: {is, does, has}

    There are a few exceptions {can, could, let, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would}. However, these are usually model auxiliaries, verbs in the subjunctive mood, or other cases that are not in the indicative mood.
    Example sentence: He could if he would, but he does not want to.
    I will leave it up to you to figure out the different tenses and moods in that sentence.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    Qahtan: You will get disagreement about this. Strictly speaking, *data* is the plural form of the noun whose singular form is *datum*. You rarely hear the word datum, however, and treating data as singular is so widespread that many consider it accpetable. E.g.
    “The data is clear about this”, or “the data says you are right”. Some, however– I am loudly among them– maintain that it is useful and worthwhile to preserve the plural quality of the word. So, “the data are clear about this” and “the data say you are right” are preferable. If you go with the second (plural) no one can say you are wrong.

  • venqax

    Alice Kemp: I think he does answer the question when he says, when we put two or more numbers through an operation, they are considered a single set. So *one and two*, or *one plus two*– are both examples of two numbers engaging in the operation of addition (I guess, math is impossible) and so are single entities (sets). So, *one-and-one IS*, *one-plus-two IS*.

  • Daniel

    I saw a sentence today that read, “A group of people struggles to survive…” What they needed to survive eludes me, but in my mind, the word struggles sounded wrong. I thought that it should be “A group of people struggle to survive…” but the only justification that I could come up with to say that I might be right was that if the words (A group of people) were replaced with the word (they), then it would read “they struggles to survive.” But I don’t know if I am thinking correctly here or not. It seems that this falls under the same kind of rule where a man(singular) fights(plural), but men(plural) fight(singular); a woman walks, but two women walk, etc. Can you explain whether these are anomalies in the noun/verb agreement rule, or if there is another rule of grammar that explains this?

  • venqax

    @Daniel: The sentence should read “A group of people struggles…” because group is singular. It is A group. ONE group. A group may consist of lots of different people, but it is one group. So a group IS, not a group are. And a group struggles, not a group struggle. Likewise a team is…a family is…a team struggles, a family struggeles, which are often misconstrued as plurals as well. You would be reinforcing the mistake to substitute “they” for the group. Repalce “it” for the group and it becomes clear.

    I think you confusing 2 different types of plural vs singular.

  • Daniel

    venqax: You are correct about the word being struggles in this case. I was looking over some other web-sites and found an explanation for this. However, I think that I was thinking along the same line as far as the other examples that I asked about in the original question. The answer that I found is that we are not really talking about singular and plural forms in this case; rather we are speaking of the present simple tense of the verb whereas it corresponds to the noun or pronoun that is being used as the subject. Meaning the words “A group of people” would be better replaced with the word “it”, and the present simple tense for struggle in this case would be struggles(i.e. it struggles) In the same manner, when I used the example of the man fights verses the men fight, I found that the same rule applies. The (s) ending here appears to have nothing to do with plurals but with tenses. Thank you for the helpful comment.

  • Daniel

    As an aside to this: according to what I have read, if the pronouns he, she or it are used, which are singular pronouns, or if the noun can be replaced with one of these pronouns, then the present simple tense of the verb always ends in “s”, and it is the singular form of the verb. However, it seems more so to be a matter of conjugation, in my thinking, as opposed to plural/singular. The reason that I say this is because if you say “wait here while I walk to the store”, then this seems contrary to the same rule. “I” in this case is of course singular, while the verb “walk” appears to be in the plural form by the same rule. And indeed, whether I walk or he walks, as a verb, there is still only one walk taking place, not more than one. Maybe the web-site author has some better thoughts on this than me.

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