Number Agreement

“to be” a special case

It’s a basic principle of English grammar that subjects and verbs must agree in number. This means that singular subjects must have singular verbs and that plural subjects must have plural verbs.

Rule: The verb “to be” requires special attention: it must agree in number with its objects (which are called subject completions).

Example 1: On 14 February 2007, The Globe and Mail printed a letter to the editor questionning the detention in Canada (for more than five years, without the laying of criminal charges or the chance of defence at a public trial) of five non-citizens on the strength of security certificates. The letter ended by asking: “Where is justice and human decency?”

What’s wrong: The missing qualities, justice and human decency, are two in number, hence they require a plural verb.

Correct usage: “Where are justice and human decency?”

Example 2: Also on 14 February 2007, The Globe and Mail reported Willard Mitt Romney’s entry into the race, to be the US Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2008, with this observation: “…  Mr. Romney may face an obstacle to his goal as big as is Hillary Clinton’s gender and Barack Obama’s race. Mr. Romney is a Mormon and many Americans, particularly conservative evangelicals, are not sure they're ready to vote for a member of a religion some see as a cult.”

What’s wrong: The obstacle to Mr. Romney’s goal is as big as two things, Clinton’s gender and Obama’s race, and these two things constitute a plural object—strictly, a plural subjective completion—and so require a plural verb.

Correct usage: “… Mr. Romney may face an obstacle to his goal as big as are Hillary Clinton’s gender and Barack Obama’s race.”

For an additional example of number agreement, please see Ninety are more than one.

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