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Opinion

A Word, Please: These phrases can make subject-verb agreement confusing

Diners are increasingly in snacking mode
“Tacos or pizza is what’s for dinner. Or: Tacos or pizza are what’s for dinner.”
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Mayor Carlson, along with his deputies, plan to visit the memorial.

Mayor Carlson, along with his deputies, plans to visit the memorial.

Which is right? Plan or plans? And, more important, why is this question hard? The concept at work here, coordination, is simple and, in most cases, 100% intuitive to native English speakers.

None of us doubts that “Mayor Carlson is here” takes a different verb form than “Mayor Carlson and his deputies are here.” We don’t have to puzzle it out.

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The “and,” a coordinating conjunction, coordinates the subject, making it plural. So you need a plural verb.

But replace “and” with “as well as” or “along with” or “in addition to” or “not to mention” and suddenly making the verb agree with the subject doesn’t seem so easy anymore. That’s why coordination issues account for some of the most common errors I see in my editing work.

Terms like “as well as” and “in addition to” are inherently misleading. They mean, essentially, “and.” “Rafael as well as Jenny” means the same thing as “Rafael and Jenny.” In both cases, you’re talking about two people.

But “as well as” and other pseudo coordinators don’t work like “and” because they don’t render the subject plural.

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Instead, they have more of a parenthetical quality, which separates the first part of the subject from the rest: “Rafael, as well as Jenny, is here.”

Yes, that’s a weird sentence. Most of us would find another way to write that. But its bare-bones weird form lets us see how “as well as” is supposed to work.

It doesn’t change the number of the subject. If the word before it is singular, like Rafael, you need a singular verb. Jenny’s been sidelined.

The more complicated the sentence, the easier it is to lose track of the real number of your subject: Rafael, along with Jenny and her parents, brothers and sisters, is here. That’s correct because, despite all the plural stuff clumped in with the subject, that subject is still the singular Rafael.

In fact, pretty much anytime you create a plural with a word other than “and,” your subject is probably singular. Rafael, not to mention Jenny, is here. Rafael, in addition to Jenny, is here. Rafael, coupled with Jenny, is here. Rafael, along with Jenny, is here. Rafael, not to mention Jenny, is here. Rafael, together with Jenny, is here.

But there’s another coordinating conjunction that causes even more subject-verb-agreement problems: or. These problems crop up when one of the nouns coordinated with “or” is plural and the other is singular.

Tacos or pizza is what’s for dinner. Or: Tacos or pizza are what’s for dinner.

Again, most of us would avoid these structures like the plague, recasting the sentence to make it easier on the ear: We’ll have either tacos or pizza for dinner. But sometimes there’s just no way to avoid a sentence in which a plural and a singular joined by “or” form the subject: tacos or pizza.

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In these cases, a little knowledge about coordinating conjunctions can be dangerous. All that stuff we just said about “as well as” and similar terms could lead you to conclude correctly that the first noun gets the verb: Lasagna, as well as pork chops, is on the menu.

But unlike “and” and terms like “as well as,” the conjunction “or” doesn’t join. It separates. So you have to choose: Which noun governs the verb?

Tacos or pizza is for dinner?

Tacos or pizza are for dinner?

Here, your ear is your clue. “Pizza are” sounds funny. And, in fact, it’s wrong. The first version is correct.

The writing lab at Purdue University explains: “When a compound subject contains both a singular and a plural noun or pronoun joined by ‘or’ or ‘nor,’ the verb should agree with the part of the subject that is nearer the verb.”

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