Do Verbs HAVE to Agree with Subjects?

Yesterday’s ballroom dance lesson began with a waltz to a gorgeous piece of music. I settled into the music and let it take me around the floor – effortless movement as we flowed in perfect time. It was glorious, and I was thinking that this moment was what I had wanted all along – all the lessons, effort, frustration, and money were worth it.

Except that I was doing it wrong. My teacher was quick to point out that my effortless flow was interfering with the partnership we were supposed to be creating. I had to slow down, twist myself into an uncomfortable shape, glue myself to my partner (try walking that way, much less dancing!), and start over.

Turns out it was ten times as wonderful as the first waltz I’d done. Straining (and I do mean straining) for  control slowed down my movement so that I could stretch out my movements and respond much more powerfully to the music.

Back to writing. Here’s the point I want to make: In writing (as in dancing) what seems right is often wrong. What seems wrong is often right. And so we come to subject-verb agreement.

Here’s an example of a sentence written correctly that might sound wrong to you:

A group of students is requesting a meeting with the college president.  CORRECT

Now compare this sentence:

The owner of the buildings is requesting a meeting with the tenants.  CORRECT

There’s a rule in English that says you usually skip over the prepositional phrase when you’re choosing a verb. I know that sounds abstract and impractical.

But sometimes – as in our second sentence – you can easily see that the rule makes sense: The owner…is. (You wouldn’t say that the buildings are requesting a meeting!)

The problem with English (OK – one of many problems with English!) is that a prepositional phrase is sometimes the last thing you hear before you select your verb.

A group of students…

Of course you want to say “students are.” And (English teachers everywhere are going to roll their eyes when I write this) you’re welcome to get it wrong. Most people aren’t going to notice.

Just as most people would have thought that first waltz I did yesterday was absolutely wonderful.

But it’s oh-so-nice to get it right. Somebody, somewhere, is going to notice and be impressed. And choosing the right verb gives your writing precision. Take a look at these examples:

The reason for the mistakes is obvious.  CORRECT

A carton of books is missing.  CORRECT

The investors in the project are here.  CORRECT

Misuse of these prescription drugs is causing serious side effects.  CORRECT

Let’s pause one more time to take another look at that last example. What’s causing the side effects? Not the prescription drugs – the misuse of them. That prepositional phrase makes a big difference!

To learn more about subject-verb agreement, click here. And there’s one more thing. A moment ago I said that you usually skip over the prepositional phrase when you choose your verb. There’s an exception! If you’re a real stickler, you’ll teach yourself how to use Rule #6. A few people (I’m one) will be impressed when you get it right.

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