GrammarPhile Blog

Determining Numbers in a Series

Posted by Phil Jamieson   Jun 13, 2012 5:30:00 AM

cartoonWe often find mismatched subjects and verbs in even the most smartly edited client documents. But that's why we're here! Check out this week's post on the subject.

Nouns Joined Conjunctively

A compound subject consists of two or more words acting as the subject of the sentence. When the series is joined conjunctively, that is, with the word and, in the vast majority of cases the subject is plural and requires a plural verb. Look at the following mistakes:

  • But recent research and commentary has [have] suggested that the Irish really did save civilization. [Note that research and commentary are two different things; the verb must be plural.]
  • At the same time, the democratic process and the personal participation of the citizen in his government is [are] not all we want. [Note that democratic process and personal participation are two different things; hence the plural.]

Sometimes two nouns joined with and refer to a single idea and should carry a singular verb. Study this example:

  • The confusion and uncertainty is compounded by doubt regarding the question whether the complete liquidation and reorganization provisions can have concurrent application. [The words confusion and uncertainty actually describe a single mental state; the verb, therefore, is singular.]

Nouns Joined Disjunctively

When you have a series joined disjunctively by the word or, the number of the verb is determined by the number of the noun closest to the verb, that is, the last in the series.

  • One apple, one orange, or two bananas are then added to the blender.
  • Two bananas, one apple, or one orange is then added to the blender.

Check out this embarrassment:

  • [W]henever the president or the governor issue [issues] an executive order, people react.

The rule of numbers applies to the either ... or and neither ... nor correlative conjunctions. Thus, number is governed by the number of the noun closer to the verb. Look at these examples:

  • Neither the coach nor the players want to lose.
  • Neither the players nor the coach wants to lose.

Watch out for along with, as well as, together with, and others. These are not conjunctions and do not form plural subjects.

Nouns Joined by Other Connectors

Writers often use other connecting words to join nouns to the subject of the sentence. If that subject--the first noun--is singular, the verb must be singular. These connectors usually are prepositional phrases. They do not perform the function of a coordinating conjunction and do not produce a plural subject.

    A very profitable company such as British Telecom, along with many other companies in the UK, is not prepared to pay a reasonable amount.

Of course, it's difficult to absorb correct usage when all around us we find so much in error. In 1999, the Washington Times wrote:

      Potential Senate candidate
Hillary Clinton, along with
      Bill and
    winding up their 16-day family vacation this week in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

No, it should read:

      Potential Senate candidate
Hillary Clinton, along with
      Bill and
    winding up the family's 16-day family vacation...

If the author wanted to stress the plural nature of the grammatical subject, he should have made it truly plural by writing:

      Potential Senate candidate
Hillary Clinton, husband
      daughter Chelsea
    winding up their ...

Source: A Grammar Book for You and I ...Oops, Me! by C. Edward Good.

Topics: numbers, plural or singular verb, conjunctions, plural

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