Quiz: Subject/Verb Agreement.

It’s been quite a while since I last offered you a quiz, so …

I hope you knock this one off in a couple of minutes (there are only 5 questions) and know why you chose your answer. It’s such a simple concept, but sometimes writers move too fast or maybe they’re just confused; either way, sometimes they don’t correctly pair the subject with the right verb. (Wait till you see #4 & #5!)

Have fun!

1. One of the secretaries (is/are) proofreading the proposal right now.

2.  Our secretary and treasurer (is/are) Joan Rogers.

3.  The committee (was/were) unable to agree on a new format.

4. Several grapes or one pear (is/are) a healthful snack.

5. One pear or several grapes (is/are) a healthful snack.

Ready for the answers and the reasons? The subject is in bold; the verb is underlined.

1. One of the secretaries (is/are) proofreading the proposal right now.

Although it’s tempting to think the secretaries is the subject, as written it’s not. The real subject is one. Of course you could write “The secretaries are …” but that’s not how the example is written.

2.  Our secretary and treasurer (is/are) Joan Rogers.

This can be tough, but we just need to remember that a person can fulfill two roles, which is the case here. To check it out, turn it around: Joan Rogers is our secretary and treasurer.

3.  The committee (was/were) unable to agree on a new format.

Both are technically correct. The best answer depends on whether you’re saying the committee was voting as a unified group, or as a collection of individuals. If as a unified group, the correct answer really is “was,” although technically we may use “were” as well, even though it will look strange to many readers.

My suggestion is to add the word “members” if we’re focusing on the individuals, which allows an easy choice of “were.” The committee members were …

4. Several grapes or one pear (is/are) a healthful snack.

5. One pear or several grapes (is/are) a healthful snack.

The two above focus on the second half of the subject, the words closer to the verb. Due to the word “or,” rather than “and,” the subject is NOT a double one and doesn’t automatically take a plural verb.

Basic rule: When two subjects are connected with “or” or “nor,” the verb always works with the second subject, the part closer to it.

Neither potato chips nor soda (is/are) a healthful snack. Neither soda nor potato chips (is/are) a healthful snack.

And because plural subjects sound better with plural verbs, in this type of sentence the recommendation is to always put the singular subject first and the plural subject second.

So. How did you do? Kudos if you not only got them all (or almost all) right but knew why. That’s the secret sauce — knowing why a sentence is written as it is.