A Word, Please: Agreeing on subject/verb agreement

Pop quiz. Which is correct? "The dogs are outside" or "The dogs is outside."

I don't even have to hear your answer to give you an A. Anyone reading an English-language newspaper surely knows that "dogs are" is grammatical and "dogs is" is ungrammatical.

Many even know why. Plural subjects take plural verbs like "are." Singular subjects take singular verbs like "is." We call this subject-verb agreement, and it's often so obvious that there's no need to worry about it.

But just when I think subject-verb agreement is too easy for words, someone shows me different. Take, for example, these three sentences from "Plague Ship," a novel by Clive Cussler with Jack Du Brul, which were sent to me by a reader named Stephen.

"From where they stood, it looked as though the Golden Dawn were surrounded by boiling water."

"What showed on the radar scope were a couple of coastal fishing boats."

"She made an adjustment so that one set of the curved grappling arms Max had installed were directly above the three-ton weapon."

Stephen suspected these were all subject-verb agreement errors.

In the first, he figured, the singular Golden Dawn (a ship) should get the singular verb "was." In the second, he felt that the singular noun "a couple" should get the singular "was" instead of the plural "were." And in the last sentence, he said, "a set" should get the singular verb "was."

But are all these sentences really subject-verb agreement errors?

Let's look at the first one. It's true that the Golden Dawn is singular and would take "was" instead of "were" in most cases. But this isn't most cases.

A couple of little words thrown into this sentence change the picture entirely. They are "It looked as though." This tells us that the ship merely appeared to be surrounded by boiling water, but in fact it was not. Thus, this statement is contrary to fact. And that means it's in something called the subjunctive mood.

If you've ever heard someone say "I wish I were" instead of "I wish I was," that was an example of the subjunctive mood. Here's a somewhat oversimplified explanation: Whenever a statement is "contrary to fact," you change "was" to "were." So our first example sentence is correct.

Our second example, "a couple of coastal fishing boats were," might seem incorrect because "couple" is singular. But who said "couple" is the subject of the verb? "A couple of boats" is something called a noun phrase.

This particular noun phrase has both a singular noun — couple; and a plural noun — boats. Every noun phrase has a head noun. Here, we know it's "couple" because "boats" is attached to it with the preposition "of," making "of boats" a modifier of sorts. But though "couple" is the head noun, there's no rule that says that the head noun gets the verb. In fact, the writer can use any of the nouns in a noun phrase as the subject of a verb.

Compare "a group of workers is being flown in" to "a group of workers are sabotaging each other." In the former, the emphasis seems to be on the group. In the latter, it's on the individual workers. So both are correct.

The same idea holds in our last example, "One set of the curved grappling arms Max had installed were directly above the three-ton weapon." But this one I don't like.

The emphasis is on one set, which is being distinguished from other unmentioned sets. So I would have given the singular noun "set" the singular verb "was."

The writers or editors must have disagreed, which just goes to show you that subject-verb agreement isn't always as easy as it seems.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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