Answers to Questions About Subject-Verb Agreement

By Mark Nichol

The agreement in number between subjects and verbs is often straightforward, but exceptions abound. Here are some readers’ questions about subject-verb agreement, and my responses and explanations.

1. Which verb form is correct — singular or plural — when using an optional plural: “The attached form(s) is provided for you to list the accounts you wish to establish” or “The attached form(s) are provided for you to list the accounts you wish to establish”?

There’s no standard I know of, nor any easy solution that comes to mind, for noun-verb agreement in this case. This solution, for example, is logical but awkward: “The attached form(s) is/are provided for you to list the accounts you wish to establish.” This revision is better but still unsatisfactory: “The attached form (or forms) is provided for you to list the accounts you wish to establish.”

But here’s an end run around the obstacle: “Please use the attached form(s) to list the accounts you wish to establish.”

2. I’m in the scientific field and have repeatedly run into writing something like “ten liters of water” and then asking myself whether it is correct to continue with a singular or a plural verb. I’m not sure whether the verb refers to liters or to water.

The context should make clear whether the verb refers to the unit of measurement or to the substance measured; generally, in scientific content, it will be the substance. For example, in “Ten liters of water is/are left in the tank,” the quantity (not the number of units of a given quantity) is important. The tank contains water, not liters, so “Ten liters of water is left in the tank” is correct. However, consider whether an active construction (for example, “The tank now contains ten liters of water”) is more effective.

3. Why is it correct to write “There is only Tom and John there”?

This is a case of an expletive sentence, one beginning with an expletive, or a filler word, such as there, which is not the subject. The subject of this sentence is “Tom and John,” but the context of the sentence is that a set of people is at a given location, so “Tom and John” is a single entity.

However, for clarity, Tom and John should be considered separate entities: “There are only Tom and John there.” Better yet, revise the sentence to “Only Tom and John are there.” (The original sentence you posed is likely to be used in spontaneous conversation, but in writing, unless you’re conveying casual dialogue, I advise using the careful revision.)

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12 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Subject-Verb Agreement”

  • Gordon Havens

    I disagree (pardon the pun) with # 2. I think it should be “Ten liters of water are left in the tank.” Discussion?

  • Gayathri

    SI units suggest otherwise.. Units of measurement should be represented in singular form. Tn liter of water, two day workshop, 2 mile run.. Correct me if I’m wrong. Time to pay my physics teacher a visit 😀

  • Chuck Bell

    I would agree (heh) with Mr. Havens–

    “One liter of water is left in the tank”, but “Two liters of water are left in the tank”, etc.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, I agree with Mr. Nichol 100 percent:
    “Ten liters of water is left in the tank”.

    Likewise: 100 milliamperes of current is enough to kill you.
    Three liters of Japanese beer was a lot to drink.**
    10,000 meters was a long way to swim.
    50,000 ohms is a large resistance.
    120 kilovolts is a high voltage.

    **Japanese beer is very alcoholic.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To me, a change in tense makes #3 clearer:

    “There was only Tom and John there.”
    “There has been only Tom and John there.”

    Still, Mr. Nichol’s idea of recasting the sentences is really superior.

  • thebluebird11

    I must sigh in response to your proposed solution to problem #2, i.e., conversion to an active construction. I don’t know how they do it in the scientific field, but I run across this problem all the time in the medical field, where NOBODY ever “does”anything. Everything is done by passive magic. “The patient was given…”, “The x-rays were read…”, “14 mL of fluid was withdrawn…” and so on. There are some doctors who are so–I don’t know–bizarre? as to construct things like, “The patient did not endorse that to this writer,” or “When seen by this examiner, the patient was doing back-flips…” Ugh! It’s not even just psychiatrists (who are notoriously crazy) who talk like that.
    But I digress. I do tend to agree that when the substance is what is being measured (i.e. the water, not the liters), it should be singular. I think I do follow that rule, but am glad this was brought up, because I will pay attention to it now to make sure.

  • lingua Honourarem

    Well Gayathri, I think I know what you mean. The Science textbooks in India say that. But that is in the case of abbreviation…if I am correct, the only exception being the pound (lbs) and otherwise it should be 10 m of tape was wound but
    10 metres of tape
    In fact these probably fall under mass-nouns, similar to collectives.

    Ten litres of water was added to the tank. : The water added was a single coherent entity.

    As far as #3 is considered…I guess this has to be a North American phenomenon. I do not recount heard of constructs such as these ever heard even in casual speech in English. And so far as the text books go, they definitely frowned upon these.

  • Curtis

    In some regional dialects, a man is six _foot_ tall instead of six _feet_ tall, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t write it that way.

  • thebluebird11

    @Gayathri: There is a difference between “ten liters of water” and “a 2-mile run” or “a 2-day workshop.” The latter two are like compound/hyphenated adjectives or something (y’all know I can’t parse a sentence, be kind! You know what I mean!) But if you had a 10-liter water tank, that would be comparable to the 2-mile run example. Mark, help me out here and explain it properly!

    @Curtis: I suppose there might be some regions (in the US?) in which you might hear someone say “He’s six foot tall,” especially when it’s truncated to “He’s 6 foot” or “He stands 6 foot.” I think you would be more likely to hear this phrasing (foot instead of feet) when there are no inches, or when the inches part is truncated (“She’s 5 foot 7”). If a person is feet-plus-inches in height (e.g. 5 feet 2 inches), you might hear “She’s 5 feet 2 inches tall,” but the truncated version is “She’s 5 foot 2,” or even “She’s 5-2.” If it’s an even number (feet only, no inches), people would be more likely to say “He’s 6 feet tall.” Also, whether there are inches or not, use of the word “foot” is more likely when the measurement is given as a compound/hyphenated adjective (here we go again), as in, “He’s a 6-foot-tall man.” In that case, nobody would say “He is a 6-feet-tall man.” And the same would apply to someone who is feet-plus-inches (“She’s a 5-foot-2-inch woman”).

  • venqax

    In some regional dialects, a man is six _foot_ tall instead of six _feet_ tall, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t write it that way.

    Yes, but as you say, those are regional dialects, not standard speech. Those same dialects would often say “10 gallon of water”, avoiding the whole problem here. Likewise, “4 mile down the road”.

  • Paul Gray

    In the discussion “Answers to Questions About Subject-Verb Agreement,” regarding example no. 2, the question was about the subject-verb agreement in the sentence, “Ten liters of water is/are left in the tank.”

    In response to Gordon Havens’ comment, my personal position on this is to make the agreement plural. The sentence is reporting on the number of liters of a liquid remaining in the tank. Because the word “water” is preceded by the preposition “of,” the phrase “of water” can be easily removed; the subject-verb agreement would then be quite obvious — plural. “Ten liters are left in the tank.”

    If water is indeed the subject, perhaps it would be better to say it this way: “There is water in the tank, in which ten liters remain.” I think this sentence addresses both subjects equally by stating what is in the tank (water), then reporting on the amount remaining (ten liters).

  • Ken Jones

    Paul finally showed us the correct answer, I think, because he actually spoke of the subject-verb relationship. Indeed, “water” isn’t the subject, it’s “liters.”
    (Oh, and it’s Subject / _Predicate_ Agreement)
    “Ten liters of water is/are left in the tank.”
    Chalk and yardsticks on the blackboard time… diagramming yields the subject is liters, predicate is “is/are left” and the irreducible sentence becomes “Liters are left.” Answers to how many, where and what kind serve to expand the sentence, but give no reason to destroy the agreement.
    Class dismissed.

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