Back to basics: singular or plural verb forms with “and” and “or”?

This might not seem basic, but it is. Subject/verb agreement is basic. All it means is that singular subjects take singular verb forms, and plural subjects take plural verb forms. Like this:

The tomatoes are growing well this year. (“Tomatoes” is plural, so it takes “are” as its verb form.)

This tomato shows signs of blight. (“Tomato” is singular, so it takes “shows” as its verb form.)

The thing that throws some people, though, is when there’s an “and” or an “or” in the complete subject. What happens then?

Thomas or William needs to call the realtor.

That “or” (a conjunction) causes the verb form to be singular, because grammatically there’s only one person (either Thomas or William) who has to perform the action (call the realtor). Yes, we can say “either Thomas or William needs to call,” but that changes the structure of the sentence; now “either” is the subject, as a pronoun standing for “Thomas or William,” and that defeats the purpose of this lesson. Remember, there are often many ways to say the same thing in English, and all of them are “correct.” They don’t all illustrate the same point, though.

Thomas and William need to call the realtor.

Now the subject is plural: “Thomas and William.” The verb form changes to the plural, “need.”

Now it’s time for me to crib from the excellent Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner (of Garner’s English Usage). I can’t say it any clearer than he does, so I’ll paraphrase from section 5.14.

As I said earlier, if the noun subjects are connected with “and,” the verb form is plural (see Thomas and William and the realtor, above). If there’s a prepositional phrase, though, the verb is controlled by the noun or nouns that are NOT part of the phrase, like this:

William, along with his partner, Thomas, needs to call the realtor. (The phrase “along with his partner, Thomas” does not combine with “William” to control the verb.)

I’m going to stop there, because it would be awfully easy to get deep into the weeds here and say nothing of much use. If you have a question related to agreement, by all means leave it in the comments and I’ll address it.


Agree to Disagree? Or: How Many Is (Are?) a Team?

It’s been a while since I wrote about subject-verb agreement. In fact, it’s been close to a year. I’ll leave the searching to you, though. I don’t want to take away all the fun.

The concept of agreement means that we want the same “number” (singular or plural) for our subject and our verb. When they don’t agree, we notice. Not because we know some arcane rule. Because it just sounds wrong. Very, painfully, obviously wrong. Most of the time, anyway.

The cat were lazing in the window.

How many cats? Only one? Then it’s “was lazing,” not “were.” Two or more? Then we need to fix “cats” and leave “were” alone. That one’s pretty clear, and a simple contextual reading will probably suffice for clarification. (This bypasses the rules for the subjunctive mood in English, which does weird things with number and tense, like “God save the queen” and “if I were you.” This isn’t that, and I’m not going there right now.)

But look at this one:

The A-group, as he called his team, were clocking out at the end of the shift.

On a quick read that sounds all right, maybe. Depends on how you like your collective nouns. They swing, you know. Singular or plural, either way, depending on the concept of “notional concord.” It also matters whether you’re an AmE or BrE speaker/writer. In the United States, we tend to treat “team” as a singular entity, like we do with companies. “Apple is announcing a new gadget.” “The team is entering the stadium.” (BrE speakers/writers tend to say “Apple are announcing a new gadget.” Looks weird to me, but it’s their style.) That matters, because the audience brings its expectations along to your work. What are your readers likely to expect? Go with what they’ll think. It’ll save you hassle in the long run (fewer 1-star reviews from grammar pedants worse than me).

If you’re an AmE speaker/writer, I suggest going with “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out. . . .” No one will argue with you, I don’t think. To check the flow and sense of it, remove what’s set off by the commas. “The A-group was clocking out.” If that sounds right to you in that form, it’s still right when you put that phrase back in: “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out.”

Certainly one could argue that a team comprises several members, and therefore could be considered as plural. That’s notional concord at work. What sounds right to you? What makes sense to you? After you figure that out, then ask the same about your audience. What will make them scream? Pick the other one.