English Grammar

Subject-Verb Agreement

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. When the indefinite pronoun none is used as the subject of a sentence, it sometimes takes a singular verb and sometimes a plural verb. When its referent is a singular noun, as in none of the flour, it takes a singular verb: 

- None of the flour is fresh. 

When the referent is plural, opinions of grammarians vary. Purists have long held that none is always singular, since it is derived from no one. Martha Kolln says that its number should be determined by the number of the referent. Most grammarians, however, take a position between these two. My own opinion is that none, when it has a plural referent, usually sounds best with a plural verb. Instead of using a singular none with a plural referent , why not use not one, which is of course singular?

* * * * *

2. Do compound subjects using or or nor take singular or plural verbs? It all depends. If the noun closest to the verb is singular, the verb is singular; if the closest noun is plural, the verb is plural. 

- Either two cans of soup or one can of stew is needed for admission to the game. 

- Neither the coach nor the players are expected to speak at the banquet. 

- Does the coach or the players play the game? 

When the verb is divided, as it is in the last sentence, number is determined by the position of the helping verb (in this case, does).

* * * * *

3. Compound personal pronouns joined by or or nor sometimes sound awkward no matter which verb form is chosen. You probably would not want to write any of the following sentences: 

- He or I am going. He or I is going. 

- Either you or he was there. Either you or he were there. 

- Neither you nor I am listening, Neither you nor I are listening. 

In these cases, rewording is in order: 

- He or I will go. 

- Someone was there--either you or he. 

- You arenít listening, and neither am I.

* * * * *

4. Both of the following sentences are incorrect: 

- Standing on stage is Norman Jones, John Taylor, and an unidentified third person. 

- Norman Jones, along with John Taylor and an unidentified third person, are standing on stage. 

Both sentences violate the important rule that the number of the verb is determined by the subject of the sentence. Here are the same sentences expressed correctly: 

- Standing on stage are Norman Jones, John Taylor, and an unidentified third person. 

- Norman Jones, along with John Taylor and an unidentified third person, is standing on stage. 

The subject of the first sentence is plural (Norman Jones, John Taylor, and an unidentified third person); the subject of the second sentence is singular (Norman Jones).

* * * * *

5. The indefinite pronouns each and one are both considered to be third-person singular in expressions like each of them, each of the fish, one of the cabinets, one of them. What about expressions like each of us, each of you, one of us, and one of you? Should one write each of us is or each of us are? one of you is or one of you are? Even in these expressions, each and one are regarded as third-person singular. Googling turns up ten times more instances of each of us is than of each of us are and about seven times more instances of one of you is than of one of you are.

* * * * *

6. Sometimes collective singular nouns require a plural verb. Examples: 

- A large number of people were present. 

- A majority of the representatives are expected to vote for the measure. 

It is recommended that words like team, choir, and orchestra be used with plural verbs when the members are acting individually.

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

Sentence Diagrams, main page
German-Latin-English, my home page
English Grammar and Usage