Tricky Situations for Subject-Verb Agreement

Tricky Situations for Subject-Verb Agreement
English can be a tricky language to write at the best of times, but certain grammatical aspects of the language are particularly perplexing, especially for those who are not native speakers. Academics and scientists who must report their research in English in order to achieve publication and disseminate their work to the wide audience they desire cannot compromise either by ignoring the perplexities of language or, in most cases, by avoiding the use of certain terms and constructions. Sooner or later that dreaded word or phrase or situation will arise and prove absolutely unavoidable, so it is best to face the challenge immediately and enjoy the improvement and flexibility that mastering new constructions can bring to an author’s writing style. The following discussion of tricky situations for subject-verb agreement is designed to help scholars answer some of the frustrating questions that arise when writing about the complexities of advanced research.

The use of the conjunction ‘or’ or ‘nor’ to join nouns and pronouns usually means that the resulting subject is singular. This is the case in ‘John or Deb walks the dog each day,’ which uses ‘walks,’ the third-person singular form of ‘to walk’ that agrees with ‘John or Deb,’ and also in ‘Neither he nor she ever drives unless it is raining,’ which uses ‘drives,’ the third-person singular form of ‘to drive’ that matches ‘he nor she.’ However, when a combination of singular and plural nouns and pronouns are linked by ‘or’ or ‘nor’ to form the subject of a sentence, the usual practice is to use the form of the verb that matches the noun or pronoun that is closest to the verb. ‘The instructor or the students open the discussion’ therefore requires the third-person plural ‘open’ of the verb ‘to open’ because it agrees with the plural ‘students,’ whereas ‘The students or the instructor opens the discussion’ uses the third-person singular of the same verb to agree with the singular ‘instructor.’
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When choosing the right verb for a subject, it is always essential to distinguish the subject from any modifying phrases that may appear between the subject and the verb. It is surprisingly easy to be misled by the nouns and pronouns in such modifying phrases, especially when an interjected phrase of this sort is long or complicated, but a main verb must always agree with the main subject of a clause or sentence. ‘The paper that the researchers wrote is very good’ therefore uses ‘is,’ the third-personal singular of ‘to be’ that agrees with the subject ‘paper,’ and the phrase ‘that the researchers wrote’ does not affect that form. Similarly, in ‘The results, which the student obtained despite all the setbacks, have amazed the examiners,’ the verb ‘have,’ the third-person plural form of ‘to have,’ agrees with ‘results,’ not with ‘student’ or ‘setbacks.’ Do keep a close eye on constructions of this kind because Word (and perhaps other writing programs) will often underline as incorrect the correct form of a verb after a complicated modifying phrase.

Finally, when two or more singular nouns or pronouns are linked via the conjunction ‘and,’ the subject becomes plural and requires a plural verb, a construction that rarely presents problems. However, if the second and any additional nouns or pronouns are connected to the first with words or phrases such as ‘along with,’ ‘in addition to,’ ‘accompanied by’ and the like, they do not affect the subject of the sentence. Like the phrases discussed above, they only modify the subject, and that first singular noun or pronoun still determines the form of the verb. This means that ‘John, accompanied by his colleagues, attends the conference every year’ takes the third-person singular ‘attends’ to agree with ‘John,’ not his ‘colleagues,’ whereas ‘The students, along with their instructor, are planning to complain about the small classroom’ takes the third-person plural of ‘to be’ (are) that matches the ‘students.’

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