This week from the Grammar Guru: a problem that sounds more complicated than it really is!
The simplest sentence structure in the English language follows this pattern: subject (what/who the sentence is about) — verb (what the subject is doing in the sentence) — object (what the subject is doing it to).
– Iain drank whisky.
In this sentence, Iain is the subject, drank is the verb, and whisky is the object.
There are, of course, many — increasingly complicated — variations on this theme.
But one thing to always keep in mind is that the subject and the verb of any must sentence “agree” with one another. That is to say, if the subject is singular, then the verb must also be singular; if the subject is plural, the verb should be plural.
So it would be incorrect to say:
– Our two weapons is fear and surprise . . . and ruthless efficiency.
Here, the subject (our, a plural) and the verb (is, a singular) are not in agreement. The correct version of this sentence would therefore be:
– Our two weapons are fear and surprise . . . and ruthless efficiency.
A Frequent Error
It all seems simple when laid out like this, but it is a surprisingly common error in both features and stories submitted for publication in “The People’s Friend”.
And there’s a very specific reason it happens: confusion over whether the subject of your sentence is singular or plural.
If the subject is a person, choosing the right form of the verb is easy.
But what happens if the subject is more complicated — like a company, a publication or a sports team?
Which of the below examples is correct?
– DC Thomson is a publisher.
– DC Thomson are a publisher.
You could be forgiven for thinking they both sound correct. But there is only one DC Thomson (as there is only one of every company or publication etc), and therefore the verb should be singular (is).
For sports teams . . . well, actually it is most common to see these described in plural terms . . . so they have become something of an exception to the rule. There’s always one!
As ever with the English language, you’re best to keep your wits about you!