Subject-Verb Agreement

I type my husband’s gardening columns every week. Happily, they usually need very little editing – he’s an excellent writer.

But we ran into a thorny problem recently, and we didn’t know what to do until we realized that there are two (not one!) correct answers. Take your pick! (We did.)

The problem was the word fruit. Or should it be fruits? Charlie was writing about ornamental peppers (which – botanically speaking – are fruiting plants even though cooks call them vegetables).

Here’s the sentence that drove us nuts:

In addition, the fruit of most varieties are notably hot, as measured on the Scoville heat scale.

The fruit…are sounds odd. There was a simple solution: change fruit to fruits.  The sentence would read “the fruits of most varieties are notably hot…” Fist pump!

Not so fast. Elsewhere in the column we used fruit as a plural noun:  peppers bear ornamental fruit. “Bear ornamental fruits” just didn’t sound right.

Here’s a better explanation of what was bugging us: we didn’t want to say “fruit is” in one place and “fruit are” in another.

I hope you’ve hung in with me this far, because this question is going to take an unexpected turn. 

There’s a rule in English grammar that you can’t use an of phrase as the subject of a sentence. But – happily for us – that rule is starting to disappear. Neither the New Yorker nor the New York Times bothers with it any more.

So we’re treating varieties as the subject of the sentence. Varieties are. Problem solved!

In addition, the fruit of most varieties are notably hot, as measured on the Scovill heat scale.

If all of this has you holding your head in bewilderment, fear not! The ultimate point is that languages change over time. Rules change. In this case, things got simpler. I’m applauding!


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