Making Verbs Agree

Do you ever feel like the only voice of reason in a world where all the words hate each other? We do. Sometimes, arranging a sentence so that it reads naturally is a daunting task.

This is particularly true of ensuring that verbs agree when dealing with things like compound subjects and collective nouns. So let’s take a look at how this works.

Subject–Verb Agreement: Compound Subjects

A compound subject is a grammatical subject made up of more than one person or thing, connected using a coordinating conjunction. Making sure that verbs agree with compound subjects is simple when they are formed using the coordinating conjunction and:

The cat and the dog are making a noise.

Even when both parts are singular, the compound subject will almost always take a plural verb. The only exception is when the terms are standardly paired to name a single thing:

This gin and tonic is delicious.

Here, for instance, we treat ‘gin and tonic’ as a single thing. However, when compound subjects are linked by or or nor things become more complicated. In these cases, we can tell whether the verb should be singular or plural by looking at the noun closest to the verb:

Either the mother cat or her kittens are meowing outside.

Neither the kittens nor the mother cat has had breakfast yet.

The cat, in particular, is thoroughly unimpressed.

Subject–Verb Agreement: Collective Nouns

A collective noun refers to a group of people or things, such as group, team, or band.

When it comes to subject–verb agreement, how we treat collective nouns depends on the situation. The general rule is:

  • Use a singular verb when treating a collective noun as a single unit.
  • Use a plural verb when treating a collective noun as a group of individuals.

However, the type of English can also make a difference. UK English, for instance, is quite flexible on the rule above, so using a plural verb with a collective noun is common:

The team are hiring a proofreader.

In this case, when proofreading, checking for consistency is most important.

Australian and US English, though, typically favour singular verbs with collective nouns:

The team is hiring a proofreader.

Consistency is still the most important factor, but it may be worth considering these regional variations when deciding which form to use throughout a document.