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Grammar Tips & Tidbits

 

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Verbs: Singular or Plural?

We usually don't have to think twice when choosing verbs for our sentences, but it gets a little trickier when compound subjects come into play.

Here's a quick quiz for you. How would you complete the following sentences?


1) Neither the doctor's office nor the laboratory has/have the file.
2) Neither the students nor the teacher is/are happy about the tests.

Answers:

1) Neither the doctor's office nor the laboratory has the file.
2) Neither the students nor the teacher is happy about the tests.

Did you choose the correct verb in both sentences? The following excerpt from the English Plus website provides some guidelines for selecting verbs that agree with compound subjects:
 

     Compound Subjects

Two or more singular subjects joined by or or nor take a singular verb.


Correct: Neither John nor Mary knows what happened.

Two or more plural subjects joined by any conjunction (including and, or, but, or nor) take a plural verb.

Correct: Both men and women are allowed to enter.

If one or more singular subjects are joined to one or more plural subjects by or or nor, the verb agrees with the subject closest to the verb.

Incorrect: Neither Mary nor her brothers knows what happened.

(Brothers is closer to the verb and is plural; the verb should agree with brothers).

Correct: Neither Mary nor her brothers know what happened.

Correct: Neither her brothers nor Mary knows what happened.

A compound subject whose parts are joined by and normally takes a plural verb.

Correct: Joe and his brother know what happened.

A compound subject whose parts are joined by and takes a singular verb in two special instances.

1. When the parts of the subject combine to form a single item.

Correct: One and one equals two.

Correct: Cookies and cream is my favorite flavor.

2. When the compound subject is modified by the words each or every.

Correct: Every boy and girl has to participate.
¹
    


As I'm sure you've noticed, not all grammatically correct sentences roll off the tongue easily. When you come across an awkward group of words, consider revising the sentence so it sounds more graceful. For example, you could revise the sentence from earlier in the lesson as follows:

Correct:
Neither the students nor the teacher is happy about the tests.
Better:
Neither the teacher nor the students are happy about the tests.

By placing the word students closer to the verb, we are now able to use the plural verb are instead of the singular verb is. Plural verbs typically sounds more natural in sentences that have a combination of singular and plural subjects.

Or you could just say, "No one was happy about the tests." That's an accurate statement no matter whom you're talking about!

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1. English Plus+, n.d., http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000026.htm,
    accessed November 12, 2006.