LOLCats are funny in part because they deliberately have terrible grammar; in particular because they routinely mix up the subject-verb agreement. Now, we all feel safer thinking cats don’t really know how to ask for a cheeseburger, but in business we should make sure we get it right. So, what is the correct way to ask for a cheeseburger?
- Can I have a cheeseburger, please?
- I would like a cheese burger please.
Both of these work because both have subject-verb agreement.
How do I make subjects and verbs agree?
In foreign languages, subject-verb agreement is handled by conjugation; verbs take on different forms depending if you’re talking about him, her, them or us. However, the English language is not so specific.
- I have it. You have it. She/he/it has it. We have it. They have it.
Only the third-person she/he/it uses a different form of the verb. This pattern remains constant for regular verbs.
- I want. She wants.
- You write. He writes.
- They edit. We edit. She edits.
There are a few verbs, such as ‘to be’ which do not follow this pattern. There are lists of them online, and whilst they are pretty straight forward for native English speakers, they can easily trip you up when you are talking about more than one person.
Verbs for more than one person
When using ‘and’ to talk about two people at once, the verb takes on the plural (they) form.
This is especially evident when looking at forms of ‘to be’.
- Lily is the new hire. Lily and Violet are the new hires.
Conjunctions like neither or either, when used alone, are singular. If you are talking about either of two people (or groups of people), you are really indicating one of them.
- Neither of the team leaders is doing their job.
Modifiers like ‘as well as’ or ‘along with’ are also treated as singular because they single out one subject.
- Brian, along with Tammy, is co-authoring the paper.
For ‘or’ the verb agrees with the noun closest to it.
- Neither the foreman nor his construction workers are here on time to start the office renovations.
- Neither the construction workers nor the foreman is here on time to start the office renovations.
Note that companies are singular entities. It’s ‘Microsoft is’ NOT ‘Microsoft are’.
Examples of correct subject-verb agreement
- Justine is working on the help desk today.
- Neither the vice president nor the COO want to attend.
- Evan and his team are testing the prototype.