Grammar Matters – What About Subject/Verb Agreement?

One of the earliest grammar lessons we learn in grade school is that a subject and its verb must be the same type, either singular or plural. The concept is simple – singular subjects take singular verbs, and plural subjects take plural verbs – but sometimes the execution isn’t so easy.

Sometimes we write too quickly and don’t take the time to think about this issue.

Sometimes there are words that get in the way and make it tough to judge.

Sometimes we realize that we never learned a particular variant of the rule, as in numbers 6 and 7 below (and I include myself in that category!).

I invite you to try the quiz below and see how well you do, and even more important, see if you understand why your choice was right or wrong. (It’s always about the “why,” right?)

  1. One of the editors (is/are) checking the proposal right now.
  2. Our secretary and treasurer (is/are) Joan Rogers.
  3. The purchase order for the new chairs (have/has) not been sent yet.
  4. A key factor, the company’s assets, (is/are) being evaluated carefully.
  5. The orchestra (was/were) was rehearsing all day!
  6. Several grapes or one pear (is/are) a good snack.
  7. One pear or several grapes (is/are) a good snack.

Ready for the answers? The subject is underlined to remind us of what word governs the choice of the verb.

  1. One of the editors (is/are) checking the proposal right now.
  2. Our secretary and treasurer (is/are) Joan Rogers.
  3. The purchase order for the new chairs (have/has) not been sent yet.
  4. A key factor, the company’s assets, (is/are) being evaluated carefully.

I’m hoping that the first four make sense, but if you’re unsure, please let me know.

  1. The orchestra (was/were) rehearsing all day!

In number 5, orchestra (as well as other words like people, committee, board, choir, herd, bunch, collection) is what’s known as a collective noun. And while either verb can be used, I don’t like seeing or hearing “the orchestra were …” I know it’s correct, but it just sounds so wrong!

If our focus is on the individual members, who might have been rehearsing with just a few others in small separate groups, most grammarians say to add “members” (The orchestra members were …), so using the plural verb will be correct and will sound natural. I fully agree with this idea; it makes the sentences easy to understand and grammatically correct.

Saying or writing “The orchestra was …” is supposed to mean the orchestra was working as a cohesive group – as a singular unit – as it usually does.

  1. Several grapes or one pear (is/are) a good snack.
  2. One pear or several grapes (is/are) a good snack.

For numbers 6 and 7, the idea is simple, but I’d never even heard of it before finding this type of sentence (and thankfully, the explanation) in someone else’s quiz years ago.

Basic rule: When “or” or “nor” comes between two subjects, the verb always matches the second subject.

Now #6 is grammatically correct, but it looks and sounds wrong to most of us. The double subject seems to need a plural verb, but because we used “or” and not “and,” it’s treated differently.

So here are my suggestions: If you have both a singular and a plural subject connected with “or” or “nor,” just start with the singular one (as in #7) and the sentence will work better. If you have two singular subjects, still keep the verb singular! (A pear or an apple  is a great choice.)

I hope this helps, and please remember: These are American grammar rules I write about; the version of English you use might be different.

I’m always open to your thoughts and questions; heaven knows I ask enough questions of others to fill an ocean. Let’s keep learning from each other.

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Susan Rooks
Susan Rookshttps://grammargoddess.com/
With nearly 30 years’ experience as an international workshop leader, Susan Rooks is uniquely positioned to help people master the communication skills they need to succeed. In 1995, Susan formed Grammar Goddess Communication, creating and leading workshops in three main areas – American grammar, business writing, and interpersonal skills – to help business pros enhance their communication skills. She also leads one-hour LinkedIn workshops (Master the LinkedIn Profile Basics) via Zoom to help business pros anywhere maximize their LinkedIn experience, offering it to Chambers of Commerce and other civic organizations free of charge. As an editor, Susan has worked on business blogs, award-winning children’s books, best-selling business books, website content, and even corporate annual reports (with clients from half a dozen countries), ensuring that all material is professionally presented. In April 2022, Susan became the Managing Editor of the Florida Specifier, a bi-monthly trade publication covering Florida’s diverse environmental industry. And although the focus is on Florida’s issues, many of these same challenges are found elsewhere around the world, so the readership isn’t limited to just Floridians or those interested in that state. But in all these endeavors, Susan’s only goal is to help everyone look and sound as smart as they are.