Keeping the grammar trolls at bay: how to match singulars and plurals

6 December 2019

The online grammar trolls are ever ready to pounce, especially on unsuspecting victims who mismatch singulars and plurals. When trolls spot this error, they experience a great sense of superiority. Don’t give them the satisfaction! Instead, find out how to get it right.

Identifying the subject of the sentence and why this matters

Every sentence must have a subject. The subject of the sentence is the person or thing causing the action. Subjects may be singular (one person or thing) or plural (more than one person or thing). Sentences must also have a verb, or ‘doing’ word.

For a sentence to be correct, the subject and verb in the sentence must agree in number. That is, either both the subject and verb must be singular, or both must be plural.

Once you are able to identify the subject of a sentence, you’ll need to work out the right form of the verb to match that subject. Get the hang of this, and you’ll soon spot any mismatching singulars and plurals.

How to match subjects and verbs

If you have a singular subject there is no s on the end of the word, but a singular verb does have an s. On the other hand, a plural subject has an s on the end, but a plural verb has no s on the end.

Singular subject

Plural subject

The new research officer [one person so a singular subject with no s] starts [singular verb to match the singular subject so has an s] work here today.           

The new research officers [more than one person so a plural subject with an s] start [plural verb so no s] work here today.

Sometimes the subject is not right next to the verb, so you need to be careful. For example:

Matching subject and verb

Mismatching subject and verb

A cyberattack [singular subject] on all the company’s data bases is a security threat.

A cyberattack on all the company’s data bases are a security threat.

It’s tempting to always match the verb with the closest word, but this may not be the subject of the sentence. In the above example, the subject of the sentence is ‘cyberattack’ which is singular but the verb is closest to ‘data bases’ which is plural.

How to use is and are correctly

A common error is to use the wrong form of is or are. For a plural subject, you must use the verbs are (or were). For a singular subject use is (or was).

Matching subject and verb

Mismatching subject and verb

There are 10,000 protesters already gathered in the city.

There’s [there is] 10,000 protesters already gathered in the city.

There were over 10,000 protesters at the march.

There was over 10,000 protesters at the march.

Some words (known as collective nouns) sound like a plural but are treated as one entity. For example, a committee is made up of several people but it is still just one committee.

Correct

Incorrect

The committee meets once a month.

The committee meet once a month.

There are several highly qualified committee members.

There is several highly qualified committee members.

 If your head is spinning with all these rules, don’t panic. Take a deep breath, read the blog carefully a few times and study the examples. Now look at a communication you have written and try to identify the subject in a sentence. Is it singular or plural? Now check the verb and see if it matches the subject.

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