Seeing plural, missing the singularity


Agreement are as easy as finding the subject of a sentence and making the number of the verb match.

Stopped you with that one, didn’t I?

When a verb follows a noun, few people have trouble deciding whether that verb should be singular or plural. In the opening sentence, “agreement” is obviously singular and needs the singular verb “is”: Agreement is as easy as …

When other parts of speech nestle in between the subject and predicate, though, sentences (and their creators) often catch a bad case of egregious agreement. Egregious agreement roams like a cold virus, waiting to infect sentences when writers let their guards down.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

“Their” problems

In American English, we consider companies, departments, schools, universities and similar entities singular. Yes, people run them, but for grammatical purposes we consider them collective.

A collective means simply that we group all the individuals together and think of them as a single unit grammatically.

In this example, the Athletics Department is a collective, so we should have referred to it as an it, not a they.

A similar problem arises when we choose a pronoun to match its antecedent (the noun it refers to).

In this sentence, a professor is obviously an individual. So is the professor a he or a she? The writer probably didn’t know and used they.

Yes, we should be sensitive in our writing, and we don’t want to refer to a man as she or a woman as he.

In this sentence, though, we could just tighten the sentence and say that the professor reported criminal use of financial cards (or credit and debit cards). The their goes away and we have a better sentence.

A modifier gets in the way

In this headline, the writer apparently saw regents and used a plural verb.

Problem is, of regents modifies the real subject of the sentence, which is board. Obviously, board is singular. So the headline should have said, Board of regents proposes.

Had it just been regents, it would have taken a plural verb.

A singular, even with “and”

This headline had a similar problem. My guess is that the writer overthought what to do.

So think about it: Do you go to the “lost” to find something? No. Do you go to the “found”? No. You go to the “lost and found.”

Even though lost and found has the conjunction and, which would usually signify a plural, it is a singular entity (a collective, of sorts), so it needs a singular verb: Lost and found benefits.”

The same would apply to businesses, universities and groups that have more than one name in their titles. For instance, William & Mary (the university) Abe and Jake’s (the bar), and Willstein, Fryar and Haverford (a fictional law firm) would all be considered singular.

A singular, even with “and” (2)

This sentence is trickier. Obviously the writer (the provost) thought the subject was plural: trust and integrity.

That would be true if the dash didn’t get in the way. The dash creates a nonessential element in the sentence.  In this case, that element is the clause and the integrity it is grounded on.

Remember that a nonessential phrase or clause effectively creates (yes, singular because of or) an aside. It’s like saying, “By the way, this goes along with it.”

Grammatically, we act as if that aside didn’t exist. Logically, the sentence needs a singular verb, as well. Certainly integrity and trust go hand in hand, but integrity generally comes first. An organization’s integrity creates trust. So the provost’s sentence should have said this:

Trust – and the integrity it is ground on – is the most important nontangible asset an institution can build.

Avoiding egregious agreement

To keep your sentences on track, follow this advice:

• Beware of collective nouns. If you have one in a sentence, it takes a singular verb.

•  Watch for they, their and them. A person, a company, a class or a group isn’t a they, their or them on second reference. If you find that your sentence has an improper pronoun, make that pronoun match the noun in number (singular or plural) or see if you can’t do without it.

Don’t let of trip you up. Noun phrases like Board of Regents or Committee of 100 generally take their grammatical number from their nouns, not their prepositional phrases.

Look for a sentence’s true subject. When a verb doesn’t follow a noun immediately, make sure you find the sentence’s true subject. That subject will determine whether the verb is singular or plural.

Watch for nonessential elements. As well as, in addition to and similar phrases that act like quasi-conjunctions don’t make a subject plural. The same with and when it is set off by commas or – as in the provost example above – dashes. That punctuation makes the elements inside nonessential and takes away their power to change a singular subject into a plural.

Whew! Somehow it seems appropriate to end this homily on number with a Three Dog Night song.

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