How to get your subjects and verbs to agree

It's the day after, and half of us are elated and half of us are despondent and a bipartisan group of us is wondering if this sentence is a big, fat grammatical mess.

That group, which counts yours truly as a member, finds subject/verb agreement to be about as clear as a Chicago election ballot, which is to say: Not at all clear. Very, very not clear.

For example: Why do I say "half of us are elated" instead of "half of us is elated"? Especially when later, in the same sentence, I say "a bipartisan group of us is wondering" instead of "a bipartisan group of us are wondering"?

Getting your collective nouns to agree with your verbs is tricky—collective nouns being those nouns that describe a group of individuals (school, family, audience, committee).

Daniel Smith's newly released manual, "Is Their Alot Wrong With This Centence? An English Grammar Workbook" (Trafalgar Square Publishing) addresses the topic deftly.

"Since the collective noun treats a collection of individuals as a single entity, it should take the singular verb," Smith writes.

The group is arriving at 7:30. The audience applauds. The choir sings beautifully.

There are, of course, exceptions.

"Sometimes we are referring to the actions of individuals within the group," Smith writes. "In such cases, the noun takes the plural."

His examples:

•The family is coming for Christmas.

•The family were arguing throughout Christmas dinner.

What if you throw an "of" in the mix?

"When a collective noun is followed by 'of' plus a plural noun or pronoun, the choice between a singular and a plural verb remains open," says Fowler's Modern English Usage. "But in practice a plural verb is somewhat more common."

Fowler's examples:

•A large number of conductors want to hear the great artists.

•The current crop of bestsellers include a number of monuments to bad taste.

What about when "of" follows a numerical phrase (half of, five of, 30 percent of)?

"When an 'of' phrase follows a percentage, distance, fraction or amount, the verb agrees with the noun closest to the verb," according to an online tutorial from the Yale Graduate School Writing Center.

Yale's examples:

•Half of the tables are occupied.

•Twenty-one percent of the population is poor.

•Twenty-one percent of the books are paperback.

All of which means … what, exactly for our opening sentence about the election results?

It means "half of us are elated and half of us are despondent" is correct. The "of" follows a numerical phrase ("half"), which calls for a verb that agrees with the noun closest to the verb. That noun is "us." "Us" is plural. So "half of us are."

It also means "a bipartisan group of us" could go either way—is or are. The verb needs to agree with "group," which could be considered a singular entity. But group is also followed by an "of," so the choice, according to Fowler's, is "open."

When in doubt, says Martha Brockenbrough, founder of The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar and our favorite grammarian, go with the option that best conveys your meaning.

"I think it's more the sense you're trying to impart," says Brockenbrough. "This is how I like to make my language decisions. They can be singular or plural with collective nouns."

Her examples:

•" Two-thirds of the movie is garbage. That's a distinct chunk of the movie, not really two out of three parts."

•"Two-thirds of the class is here. They're all here together."

•"Two-thirds of the class are taking the test again. They're doing it individually, not working on all one test."

"Some people might have rules," she says. "But I think meaning trumps all."

hstevens@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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