Subject-Verb Agreement

How hard can this be, right? Singular subjects take singular verb forms, and plural subjects take plural verb forms:

  • Jane runs.
  • Jane and Spot run.

But sometimes it’s tricky. Consider the following pairs of sentences, the first from Amy Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook, the second from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (if memory serves):

  • The only sign of Christmas was the stockings on the mantel.
  • The only sign of Christmas were the stockings on the mantel.
  • What is wanted is a few more pairs of hands.
  • What is wanted are a few more pairs of hands.

All four sound plausible to the ear, don’t they? So what is the rule?

According to Einsohn, the general rule to follow is that the subject determines the verb form; other nouns in the sentence have no bearing on the main verb. So in the first pair of sentences, the first one is correct: The only sign of Christmas is the singular subject and so requires a singular verb. Stockings is immaterial.

Applying the general rule to the second pair of sentences, the first sentence gets a pass: what is wanted is a singular subject requiring a singular verb. Strunk and White would agree with this. But Einsohn offers several exceptions to the general rule, including the case of what being the subject of the main verb. In this case, she writes, the main verb agrees with the predicate noun, that is, the noun that comes after the subject. This would make the second sentence correct because the predicate noun, pairs of hands, is plural, so the verb takes the plural form.

A third source, Claire Kehrwald Cook’s Line by Line, sides with Strunk and White. She helpfully urges the writer to identify whether what is singular or plural in meaning. In other words, does what mean “the thing that” or “the things that”? The thing that is wanted is a few more pairs of hands. Singular subject, singular verb.

Of course, when usage is divided as it is here, one can always recast the sentence to avoid the controversy: “Yo! Mr. White! A few more pairs of hands are needed over here at the bunsen burner!” </Jesse from Breaking Bad/>

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