None of our English grammar rules ‘is’ hard… or ‘are’ they?

Feb 23, 2014


It seems like it should be straightforward to figure out if the subject of your sentence is singular or plural, but sometimes it’s just not.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan joins Weekend Edition Host Rina Miller to discuss subject-verb agreement issues.

If the subject of a sentence is you or someone you know, the corresponding verb is sometimes singular and sometimes plural. Which is correct?

The appropriate verb may depend on the sentence’s meaning. If the subject implies either you or someone you know, but not both, the verb should be singular. If the subject may refer to both you and someone you know, a plural verb is acceptable.

“It gets a little more complicated if one of those nouns is singular and one of them is plural,” Curzan warns. “Then you employ the proximity rule.”

The proximity rule specifies that, whichever noun is closer to the verb dictates the verb tense. This rule explains the verbs in the sentences “A cake or cookies are fine” versus “Cookies or a cake is fine,” which are both grammatically correct.

Finally, Curzan takes on the singular subject “none.” Is the sentence “None of the books are any good” correct, or should it be, “None of the books is any good”?

In this case, either is acceptable due to the concepts of notional agreement and formal agreement. If the speaker follows formal agreement, the singular noun none should be followed by the singular verb is.

However, using notional agreement, the singular noun implies there is a plural collection of items. In this sentence, although none is technically singular, it is understood as referring to several books making a plural verb correct.

The subjects each and any create the same problem – these nouns are semantically plural but formally singular.

Which grammar rules do you break? Let us know by commenting on our website or on our Facebook page.

– Clare Toeniskoetter, Michigan Radio Newsroom