Tag Archives: linguistics

A finer point: Subject–verb agreement

Rules are often made to be ‘flexible’, and one such case is agreeing subjects with verbs. In this interesting and informative post, Dan Beardshaw breaks it down.

Subject–verb agreement involves matching the singular or plural form of a sentence’s subject (either a noun or a pronoun) with the form of the verb that follows it. The basic rule is that a singular subject takes a singular verb and a plural subject, a plural verb. However, the rules of English rarely come without exceptions, and subject–verb agreement has its fair share of them.

Firstly, some nouns have a singular form but a collective, plural sense and are often used with a plural verb. And, vice versa, plural nouns can have a singular sense and take a singular verb. The linguistic term for such instances is notional agreement. Secondly, the subject of many sentences is a longer noun phrase that includes both singular and plural nouns or pronouns, and choosing which one the verb should agree with is not always straightforward. A common basis for decisions in this kind of sentence involves agreement with the noun positioned nearest to the verb, and is referred to with the terms proximity or attraction.

In this post I will explore these two types of irregular subject–verb agreement and how to approach decisions around them.

Singular nouns with a plural sense

Normal subject–verb agreement simply matches singular and plural verbs with their corresponding nouns.

The meadow is full of wildflowers.

The wildflower meadows are stunning this year.

But certain singular nouns can be used with a collective sense, or ‘notion’. For example, the word team is singular, but we often tend to think of the members who collectively form the team rather than the abstract idea of a single team. Or perhaps we think of both at the same time. Regardless, it’s common to treat singular team as a plural in subject–verb agreement.

The team are performing brilliantly.

The plural notion may also be influenced by context. In the above sentence, it’s the actions of the individual members and the way they work together that are of interest. In other words, the concrete actions of people are the focus rather than the abstract idea of a team. If team is purposely used to focus on that abstract idea, a singular verb might be more appropriate.

Each new team is given a unique name.

Other singular nouns commonly treated as plurals include staff, family, government, army, crowd, majority, number and party (in the political sense). Try forming sentences with some of these singular nouns and they will often sound unnatural with a singular verb – or, at least, plural agreement will sound natural and make intuitive sense.

The family are visiting us next week.

A majority think reducing plastic waste is a priority.

Plural nouns with a singular sense

Certain plural nouns, compounds and noun phrases are commonly treated as notionally singular. One example is things that are quantified or measured and expressed as a unit.

Six hundred pounds was the price she quoted.

Three days isn’t long enough to see all the sights.

Another example is noun phrases that form a single idea, despite featuring plural nouns.

Fewer cars in cities results in reduced pollution and improved public health.

Certain noun phrases using and, despite technically being a two-item list, can be treated as a notionally singular unit.

Fish and chips is the nation’s favourite takeaway.

A similar structure is common for simple mathematical additions expressed in words.

Seven and three is ten.

Six plus two is eight.

And some nouns that appear to be plural, such as politics, news, several academic subjects (economics,mathematics, physics), and certain proper nouns (for example, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Arab Emirates) are usually read as singular and also take a singular verb.

four lightbulbs together and one on its own, about to swing towards the others

The principle of proximity

Sometimes a sentence includes a mixture of singular and plural nouns, such that it could logically agree with either verb form. However, a decision must obviously be made. So on what basis can we make it? One approach, which will often read more naturally, involves the linguistic concept of proximity or attraction. Perhaps proximity is the clearer term as it simply refers to the verb agreeing with the noun it’s closest to in the sentence. This may appear in sentences including either/or or both/and structures. In the following sentence, the verb has eaten would agree with the dog and have eaten would agree with the cats. As the cats is nearest, the plural verb is used.

Either the dog or the cats have eaten my biscuits.

Another common place to find the principle of proximity in use is when a singular noun with a collective sense is paired with a corresponding plural. This type of sentence may involve a dual sense of agreement that references both proximity and the collective notion of the singular noun.

The group of tourists were struggling to communicate in an unfamiliar language.

A number of residents are unhappy about the development plans.

Pronouns and determiners

Notional agreement and the proximity principle can be complicated further by certain pronouns when used as the subject of a sentence or clause, or when certain determiners are used to modify the subject. The indefinite pronouns none and each can sometimes be used with singular and plural verbs interchangeably, and some of their related determiners, such as none of and each of, can express a singular or plural sense of their own that modifies the subject in potentially ambiguous ways. The conventions of verb agreement for these pronouns and determiners can be confusingly inconsistent.

None, no and none of

The pronoun none literally means ‘not any’ or ‘not one’, which is hard to pin down as either singular or plural – it raises the philosophical question of how we can define or describe the nature of absence. Nevertheless, it has an obviously useful communicative purpose beyond such musings, and, despite the insistence by some that none is always singular, in common use it’s frequently lent either a singular or plural sense by the context it appears in. For example, the following use of none refers to the singular (uncountable) noun sunshine and takes the singular verb was.

We’ve just had two weeks of sunshine but there was none for most of the summer.

Whereas the following use refers to the plural noun tickets and takes the plural verb were.

I looked everywhere for tickets but none were left.

However, an alternative notional sense may also appear: in the following, the speaker wanted one room but looked in many places, so a plural verb with the pronoun is a logical choice even though the noun it references is technically singular.

I looked everywhere for a hotel room but none were available.

The determiners related to none are no and none of. Simple subject–verb agreement will often not be affected by the use of no. The following sentence uses the singular is in agreement with the singular uncountable milk.

There is no milk left.

Whereas the following uses the plural are in agreement with the plural apples.

There are no apples left.

But ambiguity becomes more likely with the use of none of. Constructions like the following are common, especially in formal writing.

None of the suggestions is suitable.

The question raised is whether the verb should agree with the sense of the determiner (that is, if one sees none of as strictly singular) or the sense of the plural noun it modifies (suggestions) – and if the latter is preferred, the principle of proximity may also come into play.

None of the suggestions are suitable.

Each and each of

Similar dynamics are involved with the different forms of each, despite them having a clearer singular sense in and of themselves. As a determiner, it will usually be used with a singular noun and a corresponding singular verb.

Each episode was more intense than the last.

The pronoun form may refer to a plural noun but still take a singular verb.

There are two set menus, and each is equally delicious.

Like none of, the determiner each of often takes a singular verb when used with a plural subject, especially in formal writing.

Each of the candidates is required to attend two rounds of interviews.

But it can also take a plural verb in notional agreement with a plural subject, as in the following sentence.

Each of the vendors have been asked to tender for contract.

Again, this may be considered more informal, but both the notional sense of the sentence and the principle of proximity make it logically defensible.

Break the rules

Notional agreement and the principle of proximity are good examples of the imperfect logic of language and its simultaneous flexibility in creating intelligible meaning by breaking the rules. It’s easy to get caught up in the ‘pure’ logic of grammar in decisions of this kind, but that logic doesn’t always apply neatly to either the form of written language or the ways people think about words and sentences.


Butterfield, J (ed.) (2015). Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press, 30, 557.

New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press, 191.

Chicago Manual of Style (2017). 17th edn. University of Chicago Press, 5.138. Online edition: https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/book/ed17/part2/ch05/psec138.html






About Dan Beardshaw

Dan Beardshaw is a development editor, copyeditor and proofreader, specialising in ELT and education publishing. He is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP.



About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.
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Photo credits: figures on a wall by geralt on Pixabay, lightbulbs by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels, apples by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.

Posted by Sue McLoughlin, blog assistant.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Linguistic prejudice: time to check our unconscious biases

By Erin CarrieFour yellow balls with faces drawn in black ink: one sad, one happy, one angry and one uneasy

An introduction to linguistic prejudice

We all have preferences when it comes to language – things we like and dislike. There are accents that we find friendly, catchy words that we pick up, and grammatical forms that we consider to be correct. But that means that there are also accents that we find ugly and unattractive, words that we think are silly or offensive, and grammatical forms that we – often quite adamantly – think are just plain wrong.

This is perfectly normal human behaviour. We have a natural tendency to organise our realities in this way, sorting things according to dualities such as good vs bad, right vs wrong, etc. But it does beg the following questions… What are these evaluations of language actually based on? Who decides what is good and bad, or even right and wrong, when it comes to language? And at what point do these preferences become prejudices?

Sociolinguists like myself would argue that there is nothing inherently good, bad or – dare I say – ugly about any aspect of language. These are social meanings that we have attached to language through convention. And it’s perhaps no surprise that the language that we consider to be correct tends to be the language of the elites within our societies.

Within the vastly variable and changing landscape of the English language, there is a tendency to think that dictionaries, grammars, style guides, etc, based on the linguistic norms of the South East of England have the greatest authority and prestige. More often than not, these norms become the standards that editors and proofreaders live and work by, whether explicitly or implicitly.

But what happens when the work being edited or proofread is written by someone using features of regional or second-language varieties of English? Should their writing conform to the aforementioned norms? At what cost? Perhaps it’s time to reflect on the extent to which the profession privileges some voices over others and, in doing so, turns these preferences into linguistic prejudice.

The roles of editors and proofreaders

When editing and proofreading, there is inevitably a need to tread the line between (1) suggesting changes that will help the author communicate their message more effectively and (2) ensuring that the style and voice of the author is retained. Editors and proofreaders spend their time working with language and, though they may refer to style guides and implement language ‘rules’ consistently, they are also aware of the fact that language rules are abstract, ambiguous and, quite often, not applicable – there are always exceptions. This makes their roles more difficult to define – they have to use their own judgement and experience when reshaping the author’s message and mediating the relationship between writer and reader.

Every editor and proofreader should reflect on their role and consider the extent to which they are applying rules or asserting preferences, and enforcing so-called ‘standards’ or facilitating diverse voices in communicating their own messages in their own ways. Of course, some degree of conformity to agreed linguistic norms is essential for effective communication but these norms can be redefined and, even, subverted where appropriate. It wouldn’t make sense for everyone’s writing to conform to Standard British English rules when this doesn’t represent the language used by the majority of writers and readers.

Hand turning the pages of a dictionary
Problematic discourse and linguistic prejudice within the editing and proofreading profession

My work on linguistic prejudice to date has focused on speech and, specifically, negative attitudes towards accents and their speakers. One example of the impact of such attitudes is the discrimination experienced by Kasha, shared in this video (Listen to Britain 2017), who moved to the UK from Poland in 1990. The hostile reactions that she has received, based on how she speaks, have made her question her Polish identity and have driven her to seek expert help for reducing and modifying her accent.

Kasha has clearly internalised the social bias against her accent, as she describes her pronunciation as ‘incorrect’ and talks about her accent as a ‘problem’. Disappointingly, her accent reduction coach also engages in this sort of negative discourse, saying that she’ll help Kasha ‘get rid of’ and ‘eradicate’ her accent and will help her to use more ‘elegant’ vowel sounds. Given the differential status of a Standard Southern British English accent and Polish-accented English, it is no surprise that Kasha claims to feel ‘empowered’ after these coaching sessions.

The reason I mention Kasha’s story, although it focuses on spoken rather than written language, is that this is exactly the same type of discourse that we encounter elsewhere and is, in fact, as prevalent within the editing and proofreading profession as in the accent reduction industry. It is not uncommon to come across the following terms in editing and proofreading discourse:

  • ‘standard’ and ‘colloquial’
  • ‘right’ and ‘wrong’
  • ‘good’ and ‘bad’
  • ‘better’ and ‘worse’
  • ‘normal’ and ‘neutral’
  • ‘uncommon’ and ‘unusual’
  • ‘clear’, ‘pristine’ and ‘impeccable’
  • ‘mistakes’, ‘errors’ and ‘problems’
  • ‘correcting’, ‘fixing’, ‘tidying up’ and ‘resolving’.

All of these evaluations of language are based on social, rather than linguistic, norms. Where linguists merely observe differences, society has a tendency to impose hierarchies whereby (1) some linguistic choices are viewed favourably and others aren’t, (2) some are viewed as unmarked and others as marked, and (3) some are considered to be pure and others to be somewhat tainted. All of this implies to writers that they should strive not just to communicate but to communicate perfectly. But, again, who decides what is perfect when it comes to language use? By enforcing the norms of the powerful elite, aren’t we simply perpetuating a system that favours some voices over others?

Headshot of Erin CarrieErin Carrie is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. She works at the interface between Sociolinguistics and the Social Psychology of Language, with a particular interest in language variation and change, language attitudes, and folk perceptions of varieties of English. She promotes consciousness-raising activities around language-based bias, prejudice and discrimination.

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Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.