A Word, Please: A singular way to confuse verb agreement

I recently fielded questions about two subject-verb agreement errors that readers noticed in the media. One was heard on an NPR program. The other was committed by, um, a columnist who should have been more careful.

Let’s start with NPR’s, shall we? The sentence that caught the ear of Peter in Glendale mentioned a hotel “...where every member and guest enjoy the beauty of the surrounding countryside.”

Peter figured that “enjoy” should be “enjoys.” I agree. But the reason is tricky.

Verbs are supposed to agree in number with their subjects. That’s why “He walks” has an “s” and “They walk” does not.

English has easier conjugation rules than a lot of other languages. For regular verbs, we only have two present-tense inflected forms — the one with the “s” and the one without the “s” — and one of these two goes with every subject. I walk. You walk. He walks. Joe walks. Joe and Mary walk. They walk.

The verb “be” is the oddball. No other verb in English has as many forms: I am. You are. He is. We are. They are.

For most verbs, agreement errors usually crop up because the writer got bogged down and forgot whether the true subject of the verb is singular or plural. “The buffet, overflowing with fruits, meats and egg dishes, was delicious.” When you start listing plural examples like this, you can forget that the subject is singular, “buffet,” and accidentally change “was” to “were,” which would be an error.

“Paula, along with Ben, Steve and Lisa, travels a lot.” In this sentence, Ben and company aren’t grammatically part of the subject. They’re inserted in a parenthetical way. The subject is the singular Paula. So the sentence gets the singular verb “travels.”

Words like “every” add their own dynamic. They signal that things in a sentence are being considered individually.

“‘Every’ is representative of a large class of English words and expressions that are singular in form but felt to be plural in sense,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary. “The class includes, for example, noun phrases introduced by ‘every,’ ‘any,’ and certain uses of ‘some.’ These expressions invariably take a singular verb; we say ‘Every car has (not have) been tested.’ ‘Anyone is (not are) liable to fall ill.’”

So “every” emphasizes that a subject is singular: “Every member enjoys — not enjoy — the beauty.” But the NPR sentence threw in a twist — an “and” that in most cases would make a subject plural, as we saw above comparing “Joe walks” to “Joe and Mary walk.”

But that still doesn’t make our subject plural because the “every” clearly applies to both “member” and “guest.” How do we know this? Because “guest” is singular, and obviously the speaker was talking not about just one guest but about every guest who visits the hotel. So just as you would say, “Every man, woman and child needs — not need — to sign in,” you would use a singular verb, “enjoys,” in the NPR sentence.

Of course, errors like this are understandable in spoken English. Your whole sentence isn’t laid out in front of you, so it’s easy to lose track of your subject. That wasn’t true of our second error, which appeared in print in some editions of this column in the sentence “Instinct and guessing is what causes all those errors.”

A reader named Carol wrote to say the verb should have been “are,” not “is.” Of course, she’s right. I suspect that typo happened because the first draft of my sentence had just “instinct” as its subject, then I went back and inserted “guessing,” forgetting to change the verb.

And that’s exactly how those not-so-forgivable agreement errors happen.


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

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World