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A Word, Please: Subjects and verbs should agree, but it’s not always easy

A couple walks their dog as they enter Black Star Canyon from the trailhead in Silverado.
(File Photo)
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“‘Guys are allowed to bring their girlfriend/girlfriends to the event.’ Are both OK?”

That’s what a user on an English language message board wanted to know a while back. And if you’ve never thought about this issue before, prepare for some brain pain.

As you know, subjects and verbs should agree. You walk. He walks. The verb changes form to match the number of the subject. That’s agreement. But objects don’t agree with subjects. You may walk the dogs if there’s more than one. Or you may walk the dog if there’s just one. The subject and verb have no bearing on how many objects you have.

In some sentences, however, that doesn’t work out so well.

For example, try the plural object in our sentence above and you get: “Guys are allowed to bring their girlfriends.” That has a nice mathematical balance to it. There are a number of guys, along with a number of girls. So it’s true, yet the meaning isn’t clear. With “girlfriends” in the plural, you could be saying that every guy has more than one girlfriend — that each guy should bring all his girlfriends. Surely that’s not what the writer meant.

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The singular object must fit the bill then, right? “Guys are allowed to bring their girlfriend.” But that seems to suggest that all the guys — no matter how many — share just one girlfriend. Doubtful that’s what the writer meant, either.

Regular readers of this column know that, often, when grammar gives you an either-or, which-is-right scenario, the answer is: both. It’s rare to come across a which-is-right question in grammar where the answer is: neither. But, technically, that’s the case here: Neither the plural object nor the singular object captures your exact meaning.

Some grammarians would limit “peruse,” which can be a synonym for “read” and “browse,” to a more focused definition more akin to “study.”

May 21, 2024

This comes up a lot with sentences that have “everyone” or “everybody” as a subject: “Everyone gets their turn.” But these two pronouns add another layer of confusion because, as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage puts it: “‘Everyone’ and ‘everybody’ are grammatically singular but notionally plural.” That means that even though these words are understood to represent multiple people, they take singular verbs: Everyone is here, not everyone are here. Everyone gets, not everyone get. Their objects can get weird, too. After using the singular verb “gets,” we shift back into the plural with “their,” then right back into the singular with “turn.”

There’s no consistency, no logic. Our only guide is what sounds right. And notice how wrong it would sound to use a plural object in this sentence: “Everyone gets their turns.” Grammatically, that’s the same as saying guys bring their “girlfriends,” yet they get “their turns” somehow sounds much worse.

The modifier “their” doesn’t help, either. If we used “his or her,” it could help in some situations: “Everyone who agrees should raise his or her hand” makes the singular “hand” more logical than “Everyone who agrees should raise their hand.” But that only works sometimes.

Certain language critics have tried to make rules to fix these object problems, like Theodore Bernstein, who wrote that “their” referring to “everyone” “is not sanctioned in good writing.” But, like a lot of language rule-makers, Bernstein used the sneaky passive voice to mask the fact that he was the guy who doled out the sanctions ’round here, thank you very much. In other words, he was making up a rule based on nothing but his own say-so.

So what should you do when you don’t know how many girlfriends plural guys can bring? Well, because neither option is right, neither is wrong, either. Just go with whatever you prefer and take comfort in these words from Barbara Wallraff’s “Word Court”: “When one is at pains to make clear that the individuals in the subject are to be paired one apiece with the persons, places or things in question, the number of the noun can’t be relied on to make the point.”

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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