Want to take a test that might trip up your high school English teacher? In the following sentences, should the singular or plural verb be used?
None of the books she referenced (are) or (is) in the library.
- Each of the members (has) or (have) one vote.
- A number of employees (was) or (were) selected for the education committee.
- A total of 12 products (was) or (were) offered to new customers.
- The number of spelling errors (was) or (were) was distressing.
- A majority of the board (wants) or (want) the merger.
Not sure of the answers? You’re not alone. Noun/verb agreement can trip up even experienced writers, particularly when indefinite pronouns or collective nouns are involved. Here are the answers and a few rules to go along with them.
Rules for indefinite pronouns
The following indefinite pronouns always take singular verbs:
- no one
These always take the plural:
And some take the singular or plural, depending on what they’re referring to:
With these pronouns, a general rule is to choose the singular verb when the pronoun refers to a singular word and a plural verb when the pronoun refers to a plural word.
Each of the members has one vote.
- None of the books she referenced are in the library.
Rules for collective nouns
Collective nouns are used to define more than one person, place, or thing. These nouns take either singular or plural verbs, based on whether the word refers to the group as a unit or to its members as individuals.
If the group is referred to as a unit, the singular verb is used.
The number of spelling errors was distressing.
- A majority of the board wants the merger.
If the individual members of the group are emphasized, the plural verb is used.
A number of employees were selected for the education committee.
- A total of 12 products were offered to new customers.
If you’re having trouble determining which verb to use, ask yourself whether the sentence is talking about something that acts as a singular entity or is talking about the individuals within the entity.
False singulars and plurals
No discussion of noun/verb agreement would be complete without mentioning false plurals. These are nouns ending in “s” that are singular and take singular verbs, including measles, mumps, mathematics, politics and genetics.
There are even false singulars: bacteria, criteria, phenomena and memoranda. Use bacterium, criterion, phenomenon and memorandum when the singular is needed.
As Grammar Girl says, it’s OK to be confused by noun/verb agreement. Just be sure you state it correctly: Everyone hates noun/verb agreement.
Laura Hale Brockway is the author of the grammar/usage/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com.