Monday, May 4, 2015

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part 3: Miscellaneous Problems

We’ve previously discussed subject-verb agreement and some of the ways writers get it wrong. Today, we’ll cover a few more common, miscellaneous errors, and then we’ll put this subject to bed for a while.

Indefinite Pronouns

An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun that refers to a non-specific person, object, or place; examples include anyone, everyone, someone, no one, and nobody. Although many of these words seem to refer to multiple people (such as everyone and anyone), they are in fact singular nouns.

     No one has arrived yet.

     Somebody needs a hug.

     Everyone is here.

Photo from My English.

However, a difficulty commonly arises when indefinite pronouns and other pronouns are used together:

     Someone has left his keys behind.

The trouble is that someone has no implied gender, but English lacks an animate, non-gender-specific pronoun. (It is not gender specific, but it also is not generally animate—by which I mean that it doesn’t generally imply a sentient being.) This is a sensitive issue for many people who feel that masculine pronouns such as he or his should not be used by default for an unidentified or nonspecific person. There are many suggested workarounds for this problem. You can use the compound pronoun his or her (or her or his, if you prefer):

     Someone has left his or her keys behind.

If that feels awkward to you, then you’re not alone in that feeling. Another suggested workaround (the most common solution that people use in their day-to-day speech) is to use the pronoun their. While there is technically plural, it is an increasingly acceptable practice to use it as an indefinite singular pronoun in these sorts of situations:

     Someone has left their keys behind.

Note that the sentence uses has and not have—despite the use of the plural pronoun their, someone still remains singular.

The final (and usually best) solution is to simply rewrite the sentence to avoid the pronoun altogether:

    Someone has left some keys behind.


Like the examples above, each is always singular. Writers are often confused because each has a tendency to be followed by a prepositional phrase ending in a plural word:

     Each of the cars comes equipped with GPS.

The phrase “of the cars” does not change the plurality of the subject—each is the subject, and it is always singular.

Neither and Either

Again, neither and either are both singular, despite the fact that they refer to two things:

     Neither of the lawnmowers is working.

     Either way works for me.


Words and expressions that indicate a portion of a greater group or whole are sometimes singular and sometimes plural. These include half of, a part of, a percentage of, a majority of, all, any, more, most, and some, as well as fractional expressions like one-third. The plurality of these phrases usually depends on the “whole” of which they refer to a portion—if the whole is a plural word, then the portion will also be plural, but if the whole is a singular word, then the portion will also be singular. For example:

     Most of the workers (plural) are upset.

     Most of the water (singular) is tainted.

     One-third of the vehicles were faulty.

     Two-thirds of the estate was lost.

Note, however, that the phrase “more than one” is singular:

     More than one pilot has tried that stunt.

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