Monday, July 30, 2007

Grammar: Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them (Part 15: Subject-Verb Agreement)

It’s terrible to watch the subjects and verbs fight. They should always get along and work toward the common purpose of completing a sentence.

But this gets tricky when you are using collective nouns or pronouns and you think of them as plural nouns:
"The committee wants [not want] a resolution to the problem."

Mistakes like this also occur when your verb is far from your subject. For example:
"The media, which has the power to influence people, sometimes forgets its responsibility to the public."

Note that media is an "it," not a "they." The verbs are chosen accordingly.


  1. Subject-verb agreement is really tough for lawyers. They often get confused between the subject of a sentence and the object of a preposition that follows it, as in:

    "The purpose of rules is [not are] to maintain order."

    Subject-verb agreement is further complicated by the fact that, in British English, collective but singular nouns take a plural verb (or at least it seems that's how all Brits write). If a Brit wrote your first example sentence, he would use the plural verb "want."

    Finally I'm old-fashioned about "media." To me, "media" is plural for "medium," and would take a "they" (and also a "have") in your example.

  2. I see your point about media! I'm using it as a collective noun in this example, and collective nouns take the singular (or so my seventh-grade grammar teacher impressed upon me).


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