Tag Archives: subject–verb agreement

Quick tutorial: the singular subject in plural disguise

iStock_000018482964XSmallThis quick tutorial is on a point of grammar that often trips people up. But before I begin, I want to offer an observation and a disclaimer.

Over the years, some of the writers whose work I’ve edited have expressed embarrassment over their lack of grammar knowledge. But, as I always tell them, it’s probably more to do with failures of the education system than with any lack of aptitude on their part. From about the 1960s, education theorists decided that grammar—the structural basis of language—inhibited children’s creativity. It imposed on them too many rules. It was boring. It was hard. And so it was pretty much wiped from the curriculum. (You can read more here and here.)

Thankfully, grammar is making a comeback in today’s schools (more about that here)—too late, of course, for those generations who missed out.

I was lucky enough to have a mother who was ‘good at English’, and I’m so glad she instilled in me a few boring rules when I was in primary school. I want to emphasise that: I was lucky. And then, in high school, I learned more about English grammar by learning French and German than I had ever learned in an English class. Since then, my work as an editor has required the study of grammar, and frequent revision, although I don’t consider myself to be an expert—a term I reserve for the few editors I know who studied Latin and for whom the parsing of a sentence was a primary school exercise as familiar as reciting the times table.

So that’s the context for my posts on grammar. For greater authority than mine, there are any number of tomes available, though I confess to a fondness for one that is delightfully quirky and satisfyingly gothic: Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: the ultimate handbook of grammar for the innocent, the eager, and the doomed.

And so on to today’s quick tutorial: the singular subject in plural disguise.

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Being able to identify the subject of a sentence is important, because the verb needs to agree in number with the subject—that is, a singular subject takes a singular verb; a plural subject takes a plural verb.

The girl is eating ice-cream. (singular subject = The girl; singular verb = is eating; object = ice-cream)

The girls are eating ice-cream. (plural subject = The girls; plural verb = are eating; object = ice-cream)

But the subjects above are simple subjects, and subjects are not always simple. They can come carrying baggage in the form of modifiers. Take a look at the following sentences. In each of these, the subject (including all of its modifying baggage) is highlighted in blue:

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas is eating ice-cream.

The girl who told us about the snakes is eating ice-cream.

The girl, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, is eating ice-cream.

The girl with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and whose friends are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.

The girl who has been watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar is still eating ice-cream and, frankly, is tired of it.

As you can see, these are complex subjects with many modifiers (words that tell us something about the subject), but the base element of the subject is The girl. She’s the one eating the ice-cream. She’s the singular subject taking the singular verb. In terms of the sentence, all these other words, all these other people, are subordinate to her, performing the following modifying roles:

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one wearing slippers and pyjamas

The girl who told us about the snakes is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one who told us about the snakes

The girl, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, is eating ice-cream.
gives us incidental (non-defining) information about the girl: her brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles

The girl with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and whose friends are helping themselves to the salad bar, is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one wearing slippers and pyjamas; and gives us incidental (non-defining) information about the girl: her brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, and her friends are helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl who has been watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar is still eating ice-cream and, frankly, is tired of it.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl is the subject of the action. Power to the girl!

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