Can We Agree on Agreement?

By Rob Kyff

November 27, 2013 3 min read

Politicians may not always reach agreement, but we should always seek agreement — between subjects and verbs, that is.

See whether you can choose the correct verb to go with the subject (or subjects) of each sentence. (I'm indebted to linguist and lawyer Bryan Garner who delineates these tricky distinctions so clearly and authoritatively in his guidebook, "Modern American Usage.")

—People don't always appreciate the toil and trouble that (goes, go) into organizing a block party.

—Macaroni and cheese (is, are) a delicious form of comfort food.

—The blue sky, as well as the fluffy clouds, (makes, make) it a perfect day for a picnic.

—Five weeks (is, are) a long time to wait.

—Study after study (has, have) shown that texting while driving is dangerous.

—The tenants were angry, and more than one (is, are) threatening a lawsuit.

—Higher gas prices (means, mean) less traffic.

—Ancient and modern literature (is, are) similar in many ways.

ANSWERS AND EXPLANATIONS:

—go — Because "toil and trouble" are thought of as a single entity, it's tempting to use a singular verb. But the subject is still plural.

—is — Here the dish "macaroni and cheese" is treated as a single entity rather than two separate items, so it takes a singular verb.

—makes — When a singular subject is followed by phrases such as "as well as," "accompanied by" and "along with," a singular verb is used.

—is — Units of time (minutes, hours, days) are generally treated as singular.

—has — The "item-after-item" construction takes a singular verb, even though it refers to several items.

—was — Even though the meaning of "more than one" is plural, this construction almost always takes a singular verb.

—mean (or means) — Some would argue that this sentence has an implied singular subject ("paying" or "having to pay), which would require a singular verb ("means"). But, because the subject as written is plural, you're safer with "mean."

—are — When two or more adjectives refer to different varieties of a noun, a plural noun is used. The sentence really reads, "Ancient [literature] and modern literature are similar."

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254

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