Introducing General Grammar


The Word Nerds will no longer sit idly by and let bad grammar persist. General Grammar will be inspecting the troops and dispensing wisdom every first and third Wednesday of the month.

Quiz: A Disagreeable Subject

Can you switch out the incorrect word in each sentence with the correct word?

1)      An assortment of odd chairs fill each corner of the large room.

2)      The experience of his two daughters warn us of the seriousness of driving while intoxicated.

3)      A handful of employees say that their jobs are highly satisfying.

4)      He is very humble despite the crowd of adoring fans which surround him.

The bird chirps. The birds chirp. We know that a singular subject requires a singular verb and a plural subject requires a plural verb: no big deal. Why adding an “s” makes a noun plural, but taking away an “s” makes the verb plural is admittedly a bit of a conundrum. However, that’s the way it is. It would just be weird if the birds chirps. So why isn’t subject/verb agreement always as easy as it is for birds?

In many sentences, the subject and the verb are not positioned right next to each other. Distance between the subject and verb evidently distorts some people’s ability to make them agree. And often the thing creating the distance between the subject and verb is a prepositional phrase. (Calm down…you will not be required to memorize a huge list of prepositions…for now, at least.)

Read the 4 shortened versions of the original sentences and the “disagreeableness” becomes obvious:

1a) An assortment fill each corner.  1b) An assortment fills each corner.

2a) The experience warn us. 2b) The experience warns us.

3a) A handful say. 3b) A handful says.

4a) The crowd surround him. 4b) The crowd surrounds him.

The writers or speakers of the above 4 sentences chose their plural verbs based upon the plural nouns in closest proximity (1-chairs fill; 2-daughters warn; 3-employees say; 4-fans surround). But “chairs, daughters, employees, and fans” are not the subjects of each sentence. (Yes, they may be the topics, but not the subjects.) They aren’t the subjects because they are objects of prepositions:

of odd chairs”
of his two daughters”
of employees”
of adoring fans”

The moral of this grammar lesson is this: the choice of singular or plural verb should not always be based upon the noun positioned closest to it. If the noun nearest the verb is an object of a preposition, it is not the subject and therefore is the wrong word upon which to base the choice of verb. It is too busy giving meaning to the prepositional phrase to be bothered with the verb! The subject is probably a few words earlier…which means you actually need to think ahead before you speak (or write). What a concept!

A little extra for the experts…

Both of the following sentences are correct. Do you know why? (Answer to be revealed in the next GG post.)

1)      The number of registered voters is small.

2)      A number of the voters are using absentee ballots.


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