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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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Subject-Verb Agreement

Even if you’ve got your basic subject-verb agreement rules down pat, you should know that English is never quite that easy. There are many exceptions just waiting to confuse you. We’ll explore a few of them here.

Group Nouns

Take group nouns. Group nouns, or collective nouns (as they’re sometimes called), refer to groups of things but are typically themselves singular. This includes words like team, party, or crew – any singular noun that encompasses a group of people or things.

In general, since these group nouns have their own plural forms – you can have a team (singular) or teams (plural) – you should use a singular verb with the singular form of the noun. Don’t let the fact that the word contains multiple things confuse you. For example, The party IS getting started at 9 o’clock (that’s one single unit of partying). Or if you wanted to make it plural you could say The parties are going on downtown because you’re referring to more than one party. In any case, keep in mind that just because a word refers to or contains a number of things doesn’t make it plural.

We’re not quite finished yet, however. Some group nouns can be either singular or plural depending on the context. For example, in this sentence – The team are going their separate ways – you use a plural verb (‘are’) because the sentence is referring to the individual team members, not the team as one collective whole. If you were referring to the team as a collective whole, then you would use a singular verb, as in The team is going to a big team meet-up and dance tonight. More often than not, the group nouns will take a singular verb because they’re being used to talk about a collective unit, but you need to be aware of the rare cases when they call for a plural verb – when there is discord between the members that make up the unit.

Stealth Singular Nouns

Another type of tricky noun is what I like to call the ‘stealth singular noun.’ These nouns look like plural nouns (they have a plural form – either an ‘s’ or ‘es’ on the end of the word), but they refer to a single thing and thus they demand a singular form of a verb to match up with. Some examples of these stealth singular nouns include politics, gymnastics, mathematics, news, and darts, as well as certain food words when you’re referring to a single dish (like eggs benedict).

Some of these are easy to hear because of everyday usage. For instance, you would never say The news are on; you would say The news is on because you know that news refers to a single entity. But with a word like politics, it’s a little trickier. Politics seems to contain a lot of different thoughts, ideas, opinions, and disciplines, so it’s tempting to say Politics are usually boring, for instance. But ‘politics’ refers to a single discipline, and so it must be treated as singular. The same goes for other nouns ending in ics. So a proper sentence would read: Politics is boring but mathematics is worse; still, gymnastics is pretty great.

If you think that a plural-sounding noun might actually be singular, ask yourself: Can it be treated as a single entity? If it can, then it’s probably a singular noun and therefore requires a singular verb.

Indefinite Pronouns

Like our ‘stealth’ singular nouns, many indefinite pronouns look like they should be plural but refer to only a singular subject and therefore require a singular verb form. These include the pronouns each, everyone, everybody, anyone, nobody, no one, nothing, everything, anybody, anything, someone, something, somebody, either, neither, other, and one.

In other words, you would say Everybody is going to the parade, not Everybody are going to the parade, or Someone leaves notes for me in my locker every morning, not Someone leave notes for me in my locker every morning. Why singular? Because while these indefinite pronouns may seem to refer to groups, they actually refer to individual actors – some (one) body or every (one) body or every (individual) thing.

I hope you don’t find that too confusing, but if you do, you can always memorize these indefinite pronouns and remember that they call for a singular verb. You’ll get the hang of it in no time.

Exceptions to Indefinite Pronouns

Though fewer in number, some indefinite pronouns always require a plural verb just as their brethren require a singular verb. These are few, many, both, others, and several. Remember the group nouns from earlier in the lesson? These indefinite pronouns have something in common with them in that they’re singular nouns that are composed of more than one thing. The reason these always require a plural verb is that you can’t break them down into their individual parts, nor can you have, say, six fews or a bushel of boths.

Here are a couple of examples of proper usage:

Many enjoy the daily clang of marching bands practicing in the street.

Few have ever tried to climb Certain Death Mountain.

Finally, five indefinite pronouns can be either plural or singular depending on context. These are most, any, none, some, and all, which you can remember by the mnemonic MANSA.

For example, Some of us have been enjoying this grammar lesson uses the plural form of the verb because the context says that you’re referring to more than one member (i.e. ‘some’) of a group (that is, ‘of us’). However, Some of the money is missing from the piggy bank requires a singular verb because ‘some’ is now describing a portion of a singular subject – that is, ‘the money.’


A similar rule applies when you’re describing a percentage or part of something. For instance, the sentence Around 30 percent of football players are also proficient ballet dancers takes a plural verb (‘are’), since in context, even though ‘percent’ looks singular, we’re talking about a percent of a larger group of people (the football players), which is still plural. If the thing the percentage is referring to is singular, however, then the verb must be singular, as in Two-thirds of this pie has already been eaten or Three shots of vodka is three too many.

Lesson Review

Group nouns, or collective nouns, refer to groups of things but have singular and plural forms (team has the plural form teams, for instance), with the singular form requiring a singular verb and the plural form requiring a plural verb. The sole exception is when the group noun refers to an action in which the members are doing separate things, as in The couple are getting a divorce (rather than The couple IS getting a divorce). Some nouns that look plural are actually singular, especially when referring to a group or field of study. Physics is a singular noun, for instance.

Many indefinite pronouns sound plural but are also singular. These include pronouns like anybody, everybody, something, either, and neither. However, five indefinite pronouns – few, many, both, others, and several – must always be plural, while another five – most, any, none, some, and all – can be either singular or plural depending on context. Try writing some sentences using these pronouns to help commit their usage to memory.

When describing a percentage or portion of something, whether your verb is singular or plural depends on the thing from which the portion is taken. 90 percent of this cake IS missing, for instance, while 10 percent of these Danishes ARE still here.

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