Finding the Subject: Special Cases

In order to maintain subject-verb agreement, you have to identify the subject correctly. Two types of sentences can make this difficult.

1. Sentences in which subject nouns are linked by "and" or "or."

John and Sarah know how to dance the salsa.

My sisters or my cousin is likely to visit this evening.

Consider these examples:

Both of these sentences are correct. In the first, the subject consists of both John and Sarah, so the verb is plural. In the second, the subject consists of either my sisters or my cousin. For some reason, custom dictates that in cases like this, the verb must agree with the last subject the writer mentions.

In general terms, here are the rules that apply to sentences like these:

  • If two or more nouns are linked by and, the verb for them should be plural, even if the nouns are singular.
  • If two or more nouns are linked by or, the verb for them should agree with the last noun in the series, even if the last noun is singular and an earlier noun is plural.

2. Sentences in which the subject and verb do not appear next to each other.

Michael, one of my fraternity brothers, plays Ultimate Frisbee daily.

Ordinarily, the subject and the verb will appear together in a well-written sentence. Sometimes, though, a string of words may separate them. Consider this example:

If you remove the phrase between the commas, it's clear that you need the singular verb (plays) for the singular noun (Michael). However, because the word right before the verb (brothers) is plural, you might be tempted to make the verb plural, too. In general, you can avoid this type of error by pretending that any words inserted between a subject and a verb are not there.

Subject-Verb Agreement

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