Subject/Verb Agreement

LI & QzzrSubject/verb agreement is a topic that most of us were taught (note: I didn’t say “learned”) in grade school:

Singular subjects take singular verbs.
Plural subjects take plural verbs.

Seems so simple, doesn’t it? And it is simple in many sentences, but there are a few times when it’s really easy to get tripped up.

Sometimes that’s due to an intervening prepositional phrase that contains a plural word, which too many writers then see as the subject of their verb. So  we writers need to be very clear about what the subject is in our sentences!

Even professional marketers are not immune from this common error! Here’s a typical television ad I see all the time — so wrong!

One out of every four adults have high blood pressure!

Do you see what’s wrong there? Not sure yet? Well, here are three examples from my Brush Up on Your American Grammar Skills course, and although the sentences look easy, for some they’re not. Take a minute to decide which verb is correct in each (the answers are at the end of the quiz).

1. One of the secretaries (is/are) faxing the copies right now.
2. The purchase order for the new chairs (have/has) not been sent yet.
3. A key factor, the company’s assets, (is/are) being evaluated carefully.

If you can correctly identify the subject in each of my examples, you can correctly choose the verb. It’s actually not that difficult, but for some it may require a little extra thought and care.

The answers are:
1.  is (subject = one)
2.  has (subject = purchase order)
3.  is (subject = key factor)

So, did you find those easy enough?  OK, let’s try the two below.

1.  The team (is / are) playing well this year.
2.  The committee (is / are) making a decision soon.

Not quite as easy? That’s because “team” and “committee” are collective nouns, meaning they refer to more than one person or thing in the group.

Collective nouns can be used in the singular or plural sense. It all depends on what the writer means: is the group acting as a single unit or individually?

So you could write “The team is” or “The team are” and be grammatically correct. But the second version will cause eyebrows to go up because it just sounds wrong.

If you mean to show the individuality of the members of a group, I suggest you put the word “members” in the sentence to make it easier and clearer for your readers.

The committee members are . . .
The team members are . . .

See how that works? And there are some other examples in a site I found on collective nouns that can help as well.

As always, I value your thoughts and insights. Have you run into this issue in your own writing? Have you seen that other writers have difficulty with the concept?