Subject-Verb Agreement

By Guest Author

This is a guest post by Jacquelyn Landis. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

My copyediting students occasionally stumble when they see a sentence like this one:

All the shirt needs is/are buttons.

Which is it? The singular is or the plural are? Most of us know instinctively that the verb form must match the subject form in number. This is called subject-verb agreement. But sentences such as this one seem ambiguous since all can be either singular or plural when it’s used as an indefinite pronoun.

It would be an easy choice if all were followed by a prepositional phrase to help us determine whether it’s singular or plural:

All of the water is draining. (singular)

All of us are tired. (plural)

So, what many writers would do with the problematic sentence is turn to buttons to help them make the decision. And since buttons is plural, then the verb should be plural, too. Right? Well, not quite.

Buttons in this sentence is what’s called a predicate nominative. Now, I know grammar terms like this are enough to send most people screaming into the night, but stick with me. A predicate nominative is simply a noun that is the same as the subject. It describes it further, just as buttons describes all.

Predicate nominatives do not determine the verb form; only the subject can do that. And the subject of our puzzling sentence, all, is a singular pronoun even though what it substitutes for (buttons) is plural. It stands on its own with no help from a prepositional phrase. When this is the case, it’s singular.

Thus, the correct verb form is also singular, so this is how our sentence should read:

All the shirt needs is buttons.

Follow the same logic when the subject is what:

What he ordered was steamed clams.

Whenever I’m tempted to use a plural verb in sentences such as this, I remind myself of a song: “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” The song’s authors were teachers, and they got it right.

Jacquelyn teaches an online copyediting course to students from around the world Education to Go. Check it out.

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15 Responses to “Subject-Verb Agreement”

  • Andrew

    Great article and reminder for the rule!!

  • Amy

    Thanks, that was a nice explanation. I usually try to replace the subject with a pronoun and see if that helps. It’s not always that simple though.

  • Don Mosher

    I’m interested in downloading your free ebook Basic English Grammar. How do I go about that?

    Thanks,

    Don

  • John

    Your explanation is very good. I would analyze the sentence as containing a that clause so I have
    All [that the doctor needs] is buttons.

    Once I have found the subject for needs, I can find the subject for the is/are. As you note, all is singular unless modified by a prepositional phrase.
    However, this is different from the second example,

    What he ordered was steamed clams

    because “What he ordered” is a noun clause.

  • Rod

    I’ve always been confused on what to use for example:
    neither the employees nor the boss was/were happy with the results.
    A pair of pliers is/are always useful
    I know that I’m to Identify the main subject for example: Everything including the clothes in the closet was no were stolen since every… is singular even though clothes is plural but is not the main subject but the first examples mentioned, I’m not quite sure I’d appreciate your help

  • Mary K

    What about a singular subject with a plural predicate nominative?

    One of the main directions of the company is services to business and industry in the field of…

    “One…is…services” or “One…are…services”?

  • Melly

    Mary K, it would be “One…is…services.”

  • Maraniza

    us usual great article ……………………………..

  • Laurie

    A million thanks for posting this rule. I have been searching through books and websites for the longest time trying to find an explanation for which verb to use–singular or plural–with a “noun clause + to be + predicate noun” sentence. I have noticed so many people saying things like “What we need are new books,” that I was starting to think I was the one who was wrong, and I have been tempted to use a plural verb along with them. Just one more example of how sloppy we are getting in our use of the English language!

  • Sebastian

    I have a problem with subject verb.
    It’s you who doesn’t understand or
    It’s you who don’t understand.
    Which is correct and why?

  • Carolyn

    Sebastian,

    It is you. You don’t understand. Who doesn’t understand? As I just said, it is you. You don’t understand. Who does understand? That is you too!

    The reason is that there are two verbs in your example. The first is TO BE; the second is TO DO. Each has its own separate subject.

    So, ‘It’s you who doesn’t understand’ is correct.

    The confusion comes a) in not noticing the ‘is’, and b) in not noticing that ‘who doesn’t understand’ is a relative clause.

  • Carolyn Knight

    So I was wrong?

  • Bill Davis

    A tricky context is with mass plural nouns like “committee.” There continues to be debate over whether those should have a plural or singular verb:

    The committee thinks…

    vs.

    The committee think…

    Personally I like the sound of singular, which is technically correct (although I don’t always jump on the “correct” bandwagon).

  • as

    It should be you, who don’t understand.

  • Mhagos

    All uses the plural form of the verb when it refers to to plural nouns, and all takes the singular form of the verb when it refers to singular nouns. It also just sounds wrong when all uses a singular verb when the predicate nominative is plural and vice versa.

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