Subject–Verb Agreement, The General Principle

Over the previous sections, we have learned to define and identify the subject of a clause. In this and the following sections, we will learn the various rules and exceptions that govern the agreement between a subject and the verb.

The General Principle

Singular and uncountable nouns take singular verbs.
Plural nouns take plural verbs.

SVA 1.1 The basic case

Let us begin with the basic case of simple subjects. The subject is formed by a noun or pronoun, and we know that every noun/pronoun can fall under one of the following three categories: singular, plural, and uncountable. The following examples illustrate the application of this basic principle for simple subjects.

  • Comparison is a fundamental element of critical thinking.
  • This portrait of Lord Byron was painted by the English artist Richard Westall in 1813.

Once this basic principle is established, we decide the number property of the subject – whether the subject is singular, plural, or uncountable. The following subsections and the other four SVA categories provide a systematic approach to classify a subject into one of these three possibilities.

SVA 1.2 With each, every, either, and neither

Either and neither are singular and hence take a singular verb.

  • Would you like to edit a humanities title or a title set in LaTeX? ~Either is fine with me.
  • Which one do you find it difficult to process, a Word file or a LaTeX file? ~Neither is difficult for me.

Each and every are both singular. This is true even in phrases such as “each and every x”, which is still treated as singular. The emphasis is on individual elements.

  • Each and every student supports the 4-day-week idea.

SVA 1.3 With each of, either of, and neither of

These three phrases are followed by plural nouns, but the phrase as a whole is singular. Hence the verb is singular too.

  • Each of the cars is ready for the race.
  • Either of the options is fine for the performance.
  • Neither of the choices is appropriate for this audience.

However, the phrase they each is treated as plural.

  • Each house is painted yellow.
  • The houses each are painted yellow.

SVA 1.4 With singular indefinite pronouns

The following pronouns are singular: everyone, everything, everybody, no one, nothing, nobody, someone, something, somebody, anyone, anybody, anything, another, one, less, and little

  • Everyone in the family is looking forward to this day.
  • No one is willing to give this event a miss.
  • Little is known to them that this event is going to be bigger than expected.

SVA 1.5 With plural indefinite pronouns

The following indefinite pronouns are plural and hence take plural verbs: both, few, many, several, and others

  • Few publications have discussed this novel idea.
  • Both are hailed as thinking beyond the ability.

SVA 1.6 Indefinite pronouns that can be singular or plural

The following indefinite pronouns can be either singular or plural: none, all, any, more, most, some, and such. Each of these pronouns can be used in singular or plural when used by itself. When followed by of-phrases, the verb can be singular or plural depending on the number of the noun (the object of the of-phrase).

  • All of them, all fifteen boys, were yelling and hollering as Coach Dodson seemed to be in shock. [With a plural pronoun and hence plural verb]
  • Though all art is a form of healing and therapy to some extent, all therapy is not art. [With singular noun, and hence singular verb]
  • On the surface, all is well. [Pronoun by itself and hence singular]
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