How to nail subject-verb agreement with indefinite and collective nouns

It’s a grammar mistake that can sully your reputation as a writer and doom your media pitch. Consider these insights to keep the rule straight on collective and indefinite nouns.

About half of all grammatical errors are mistakes in the use of verbs.

As professional writers and editors, we sometimes focus so much on choosing the right verbs that we forget the basics of these powerful and sometimes troublesome parts of speech.

Here’s a brief look at two problem areas involving subject-verb agreement.

Collective nouns

Collective nouns define more than one person, place or thing (e.g., team, class, audience, panel, staff). These nouns take either singular or plural verbs, depending on whether the word refers to the group as a unit or to its members as individuals.

If the group is referred to as a unit, the singular verb is used.

  • The team is on the field.
  • A majority favors the merger.

If the individual members of the group are emphasized, the plural verb is used.

  • The team are taking their practice shots.
  • The jury want to review three bits of testimony.

When the subject refers to a unit amount or a lump sum, the verb is singular.

  • Four days is a reasonable time.
  • Five drinks is enough for her.

When the subject refers to several units, the verb is plural.

  • Four days were marked off the calendar.
  • Five drinks are on the table.

Because plural verbs may sound odd with collective nouns, it’s often best to re-work the sentence.

Instead of “The team are taking their practice shots,” a better construction would be: “The players are taking their practice shots.”

Indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns do not refer to a specific person, place or thing. Indefinite pronouns are general.

  • Everybody wants to see the new style guide.
  • Most of your writing is good.

Because it’s not always clear what indefinite pronouns are referring to in the sentence, it’s not always clear which verb form they take.

Indefinite pronouns such as everyone, everybody, anyone, one, no one, each, either and neither take singular verbs.

  • Each of the members has one vote. (Each member has one vote.)

These indefinite pronouns take the plural form: several, few, fewer, both, many, others.

  • Several of the pages were missing. (Several pages were missing.)

For other indefinite pronouns—all, any, most, none, and some—context determines the verb. If the pronoun refers to a plural noun that is countable, the verb is plural. If the pronoun refers to a noun that is not countable, the verb is singular.

  • None of the books she referenced are in the library.
  • Most of the confusion was over.
  • Some of the laughter was dying.

Laura Hale Brockway is a writer/editor/marketer/ living in Austin, Texas. Read more of her work on PR Daily and at Impertinent Remarks.

(Image via)


One Response to “How to nail subject-verb agreement with indefinite and collective nouns”

    Tom says:

    There is no functional difference between “A majority favors the merger” and “The jury want to review three bits of testimony” in terms of speaking of the group itself or of its members. As a matter of fact, if you run Grammerly over it, it will recommend that “want” be changed to “wants.” This is another American English rule that is already falling by the wayside because of its impracticality and irrelevance–that’s why someone feels compelled to write an article on it.

PR Daily News Feed

Sign up to receive the latest articles from PR Daily directly in your inbox.