Sometimes a long phrase or clause will separate a subject from a verb. Consider the following error in subject/verb agreement:
- The play with such true witticisms and parables come highly recommended.
The author has misconstrued the subject as “witticisms and parables” and has thus used the plural form of the verb. You must always identify the actual subject of the sentence—in this case the noun “play.” One way to identify the subject of a sentence is to find the word or phrase that comes before the verb and does not modify anything else. Prepositional phrases can never act as the subject of the sentence, so you can separate them with brackets to find the subject:
- The play [with such true witticisms and parables] comes highly recommended.
Subjects can be phrases as well. Consider these two examples:
- To attend a party without pants is quite foolish.
- Running a marathon is his idea of a vacation!
In the above sentences, the underlined phrases function as subjects. Subject phrases always take singular verbs.
There are also several rules related to the conjunctions and, or, and nor. If the subject is composed of two or more nouns or pronouns connected with an and, then the verb is plural:
- Her watch and wallet were stolen from the locker at the train station.
When two or more singular nouns are connected by or or nor, use the singular form of the verb:
- A socket wrench or power drill is a good tool to have in a situation like this.
If one of the nouns connected with or or nor is plural, use the plural form of the verb if the plural noun is closer. However, if the singular noun is closer to the verb, use the singular form of the verb:
- A power drill or socket wrenches are good tools to have in a situation like this.
- Socket wrenches or a power drill is a good tool to have in a situation like this.
There are a few exceptions to the rule of subject/verb agreement. Some nouns such as civics, politics, mathematics, measles, mumps, and news take the singular form of the verb:
- The news is dire.
- Politics is becoming more optimistic these days.
Circle the correct form of the verb in each sentence.
- There is/are fewer criminals on the street since the law was passed.
- That may be, but there is/are no evidence that it’s making us any safer.
- Mathematics is/are the fundamental language of psychics.
- Jerry, who runs around all weekend trying to find great deals at big-box stores, sometimes lose/loses sight of what’s really important.
- Civics is/are taught in every high school in America.
- The protesters holding that hand-painted sign seem/seems really motivated.
- Throwing politicians to the media sharks does/do them some good.
- Neither the sword nor the pen is/are most mighty in this situation.
- Charity or alms helps/help those suffering most from the recession.
- Potassium and water is/are a dangerous combination!