Ontext grammar police – matching verb and noun numbers


If you want to sound like a knucklehead, the best thing to do is to mismatch your verbs and nouns. Here’s the rule from grammar police – plural nouns need plural verbs and singular nouns need singular verbs. There’s no option involved, and collective nouns are singular, not plural. I read junk every day – from authors or writers who claim to be experts – that have mismatched nouns and verbs.


“The best ideas in the world is from writers and poets.”

What’s wrong?

The nound, ideas is plural. The person who wrote this sentence lost track of that fact when she put a descriptive phrase between the noun and the verb. So she chose to use a singular form of the verb, to be. She chose is. Had she re-read her sentences, chances are she would have found her own error and changed the verb form to are.

“The best ideas in the world are from writers and poets.”

Another example

Book titles is hard to come up with.

What’s wrong?

The subject of the sentence is not book, it’s titles. Titles is a plural noun (no, you cannot say titles are plural nouns). The verb has to be plural. Are. Book titles are…

A further complication

Some nouns may seem plural because they refer to a number of persons or things. Examples: everyone, herd, group.

Right: The herd was crossing the road. Wrong: The herd were crossing the road.

Or the noun may feel as though it refers to a number of things, but it actually requires a singular match. Examples: Each, no one, all, any, anybody, anyone, anything, neither, nobody, everybody, everyone, everything, either, no one, nothing, one, some, somebody, someone, something.

So verb/noun matches go like this: Everyone was in a circle. Wrong: Everyone were in a circle.

No one from that school were welcome here. Should be: No one from that school was welcome.

A tricky subject situation

If you say:

“His favorite food are apples,” you’re wrong even though you would say “Apples are his favorite food.”

The correct form is “His favorite food is apples.” Go figure.

Bottom line for nouns and verbs

Writers, hear this – most of your grammar and usage problems would disappear if you took time to read your work when you finish the first writing. Lots of not-so-capable writers, who profess to be polished, never read their own work. Ego gets in the way of credibility. For editors, the first reason to chuck a piece of work into the trash is grammar sloppiness.

I got a sales pitch from a young lady who saw herself as a slick blogger. She wanted to sell me on using her “guest posts” on my blog. Her goal was free publicity for her work and products. However, her sales email and her blog posts were stuffed full of mismatched verbs. I was a bit interested in her product, even her blog topics. But I couldn’t deal with the sloppy writing, so I hit delete.

If you want frequent examples of poor grammar – go read Twitter, Facebook, or the writing groups at LinkedIn. When you trudge through the amazingly bad construction, you may decide to mention to some of the writers that their work would be better after a proofing. They’ll often tell you, “OH, I proof the stuff I submit to editors, but I just don’t care here.”

Brilliant. A writer puts himself out there in a public forum – dangling lousy writing from every orifice. Hmm. He’s thinking editors don’t read forums?

You can read a thorough discussion of verb/noun agreement – or predicate/subject agreement from Hornbook.

Want more grammar police?

Top ten grammar gripes

Vocabulary lesson

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3 Responses to “Ontext grammar police – matching verb and noun numbers”

  1. The second reason for an editor to chuck a piece of work is typographical and spelling errors. Consider this sentence in the above post:

    “Writers, hear this – most of your grammar and usage problems would disappear if you tool time to read your work when you finish the first writing.” (**error has since been corrected. –ed.**)

    Yes, the “k” and the “l” keys are together on a QWERTY keyboard, and a spell checking tool is unlikely to catch this accidental mistake, making it far less egregious than the agreement problems discussed in the article. I was fascinated that the author, in the very next sentence, chastised not-so-capable writers for the very same lack of proofreading.

    I think we’re all victims of the Twitter/IM/sound-byte culture that has ravaged our collective communication sensibilities.

    OK, that’s enough anal-retentive chatter. It’s Friday – time to let down one’s hair and relax a little.

    Your post settled a discussion I was having with a client about noun+verb and pronoun+noun matching. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for providing so many examples of this common grammar issue. Even experienced writers make simple mistakes like the ones you point out. Proofing your own writing isn’t easy and little things like this can slip through the cracks. Reading ‘grammar police’ posts are a good way to hone the skills of your own internal editor!

  3. Patty – thanks for your input – please come back often and tell us what you think!