If you want to write proper English, you have to follow a rule called “subject-verb agreement.” That means that if the subject is plural (ducks), then the verb needs to be plural (quack). If the subject is singular (duck) then the verb needs to be singular (quacks).
This issue is not as picky and unimportant as you might think. Traditionally, American novelists who wanted to show that a character was uneducated would give them dialog with incorrect subject-verb agreement: “Waall, we is just gonna have to ride after them, ain’t we?” or “But suh, dey tells me not to do dat!”
It could be worse. If you spoke Basque, the object would have to agree with the subject too. In many languages, such as French, pronouns and nouns, even inanimate objects, have gender, and they have to agree with each other too. In proper Turkish, some vowels need to agree.
Notice that English verbs, unlike nouns, usually don’t become plural by adding s. In fact, many singular, present-tense verbs end with s, while many plural verbs don’t – exactly the opposite of nouns.
More than anything else, sentences that begin with several nouns tend to fool people. Here are some rules to guide you into what you should do with them:
- Two singular subjects connected with and are plural, and need a plural verb. For example, which is correct: “My mother and my father are visiting me” or “My mother and my father is visiting me?” After all, it’s correct to say “My father is visiting me.” But two parents together are plural, not singular, so you need to use are. Of course, a plural subject combined with a singular subject is still plural, and you would use a plural verb. For example, this is correct: “The general and his advisers are responsible for the decision.” To make it less confusing, we put the plural subject last, closest to the verb.
- Two singular subjects connected with the conjunctions or or nor need a singular verb. For example, “My mother or my father is going to call me today” is correct because only one of them will be calling. It works the same way with and…or and neither…nor: “Neither my mother nor my father is going to call me today.” If one of the subjects is plural, use a plural verb: “The general or his advisers are responsible for the decision.” Again, we put the plural subject last, closest to the verb.
- Don’t get distracted if there’s another phrase between the subject and the verb. For example, you should say “My sister, along with her children, is visiting me next month;” even though you would say “My sister and her daughters are visiting me next month.” The verb needs to agree with the subject, not with other nouns that happen to precede the verb.
- Words such as either, neither, everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, someone, none or each, are singular and need a singular verb. As we just said, don’t be fooled if a singular subject is followed by plural nouns. For example, when you write “each of my daughters,” make sure the verb agrees with the singular subject each instead of the plural noun daughters. And the singular subject “everyone who knows my daughters” should be followed by the singular predicate “is impressed by them,” not “are impressed by them.”
- On the other hand, fractions or portions of a plural noun are still plural. Often these are expressed with prepositional phrases: “most of the students” or “half of the campus.” Use a singular verb if the object of the preposition is singular, but a plural verb if it’s plural. For example, write “Some of the students are wealthy,” and “Half of the campus is covered with trees.”
- Time and money are singular. Yes, five is plural, and the word yards is plural, but you would write “Five yards is all I need to finish my sewing project.”
Notice that many of these rules are really just warnings to look carefully at the sentences you write. Once you know that subjects and verbs need to agree, and you know what counts as the subject and what doesn’t, you are on your way to sounding more educated.