One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
Matching subjects and verbs
Matching up singular or plural subjects with singular or plural forms of a verb is part of the process called agreement. This is easy in simple sentences:
He admits that he is worried. [singular subject and verb]
They admit that they are worried. [plural subject and verb]
But there are some cases where the grammar is not so straightforward.
The examples above show simple subjects (he and they) with only one element. A compound subject is one in which two or more elements form the subject of a sentence, as in the following cases. A compound subject can be composed of nouns, pronouns, a noun phrase, or a clause.
Two or more nouns or pronouns joined by and are normally treated as plural and take a plural verb:
Speed and accuracy are top of the list.
Carrots, broccoli, and spinach were found to have pesticide residues.
Tina, Sara, and I have many friends in common.
When the subject of the sentence is a single noun followed by another element tagged on by a phrase such as accompanied by, as well as, or together with, then the verb should be singular and not plural. In these cases, it's the singular noun that is the true subject:
|The little girl,||together with her friend Kerry,||was filling her bucket with sand.|
|Your booking form,||accompanied by a cheque,||needs to reach us by Monday.|
One easy way to check the agreement in these cases is to think of the sentence without the extra element:
The little girl… was…; Your booking form…needs…
More complex sentences can be trickier because they are grammatically ambiguous, for example:
More than one in ten health club members ?admit/?admits to joining a gym for social reasons.
At first glance, the subject of this sentence may appear to be singular. But it’s actually plural, i.e. members rather than one member. You need to use the plural form of the verb, i.e. admit:
More than one in ten health club members admit to joining a gym for social reasons.
On the other hand, the subject of the following sentence may appear to be plural (i.e. the Internet and email):
The arrival of the Internet and email ?make/?makes communication with family so much easier.
But it's actually singular (the arrival), so you should use the singular verb makes.
In cases like these, if you aren't sure, try replacing the subject of the sentence with an appropriate pronoun (in the latter case, the singular pronoun it):
✓ It makes communication…
✗ It make communication…
You can read more about matching subjects with verbs on the Oxford Dictionaries blog. Here you will find tips on identifying the subject in a sentence as well as questions to test your understanding of matching subjects and verbs.
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