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

January 18, 2013|By June Casagrande

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.

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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.

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