Answers to Questions About Subject-Verb Agreement
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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