Subject-verb disagreement is one of the commonest errors I see these days in business writing. People who have mastered punctuation, pronouns, and challenging word pairs still miss the occasional agreement problem.
Sometimes a plural verb is incorrectly paired with a singular subject, for example:
Each of the selected candidates have to write a personal statement. (Correct: Each . . . has)
And sometimes a singular verb is incorrectly matched with a plural subject, as in this error I recently heard on National Public Radio:
The chaos and violence continues in Iraq. (Correct: The chaos and violence continue--because chaos and violence are two distinct things.)
Test yourself on subject-verb agreement in these 10 sentences. Some sentences are correct.
Options regarding the ways to handle the risk was discussed.
Either Carolyn or her team members has copies of the rental agreement.
Our recommendation and bid cover training in business writing, including grammar and punctuation.
The advice from the senior team and the input from the public was considered in developing the program.
Contributions raised at the annual event funds our local programs.
Customer satisfaction and product reliability is our responsibility.
Our team has been working diligently and is making excellent progress.
Neither of her professional references have called me back yet.
One of the reasons she contacted us are the accounts payable problems.
This survey, along with earlier analyses, suggests that we increase prices.
Before you review the answers below, check to see whether you fixed seven incorrect sentences.
Here are corrections:
Options regarding the ways to handle the risk were discussed. (options . . . were)
Either Carolyn or her team members have copies of the rental agreement. (team members have)
Correct--if the recommendation and bid are two separate pieces.
The advice from the senior team and the input from the public were considered in developing the program. (the advice . . . and the input . . . were)
Contributions raised at the annual event fund our local programs. (contributions . . . fund)
Customer satisfaction and product reliability are our responsibility [or responsibilities]. (satisfaction and . . . reliability are)
Correct. Team is singular in this context.
Neither of her professional references has called me back yet. (neither . . . has)
One of the reasons she contacted us is the accounts payable problems. (one . . . is)
Correct. Ignore the phrase within commas when determining the verb.
My Microsoft grammar and spelling checker missed the errors in Numbers 5, 6, and 9 but identified all the other errors. It did not suggest changing the correct sentences.
Today I sent out my free monthly newsletter, Better Writing at Work, to more than 19,000 subscribers. As always, I included an Error Quest. That's the monthly puzzler paragraph that includes one error for readers to find. Unfortunately, this month's had two.
I have removed the error I intended from the paragraph below. Can you find the one error I missed?
What I like about the paint department in our hardware store is the swatches of paints that go well together. I am never certain which colors complement others, but the color strips guide me in the right direction.
The other day I had lunch with an old friend at a restaurant. We both ordered tea, and our tea came in ceramic teapots. My friend's teapot had a noticeable chip on its lid. She commented to me, "They should not be using a chipped teapot!" I agreed.
For the rest of the meal, we talked happily, but we were on our guard. We checked the silverware to be sure it was clean. We examined the lettuce to make sure it was fresh. We looked at each forkful of salad before putting it in our mouths.
The chip in the teacup lowered our confidence in the restaurant and in the quality of our meal.
That true story was my answer to a question asked in a business writing class I led today: Does correct punctuation really matter?
Yes, correct punctuation matters. Correct grammar and usage matter. Sentence structures must be solid. Spelling counts.
If you let errors or inconsistencies creep into your communications, you will chip away at readers' confidence in your messages--just the way the chipped teapot eroded our confidence in the restaurant and the meal. Your readers may begin to doubt your conclusions or your data. They may reply with questions rather than action or approval.
Texts to a friend or quick back-and-forth emails to a coworker do not need to be flawless (unless they may be forwarded to people whose confidence you need to win). But when you have to meet readers' high expectations, the details matter.
Don't chip away at your credibility. It is hard to re-establish. My friend and I will not return to that restaurant.
Lately the most common error I see in the writing samples of smart, successful people is a lack of subject-verb agreement. People are using singular verbs with plural subjects, and plural verbs with singular subjects. Errors are popping up everywhere.
For example, a subject-verb error hurts this sentence:
The Board of Directors meet monthly.
Explanation of the error: Board is a singular subject; it requires a singular verb, meets: The Board meets monthly.
If you changed the sentence to focus on the Board members, the plural verb meet would be correct:
The members of the Board of Directors meet monthly.
A subject-verb error ruins this sentence too:
Options regarding the ways to handle the risk was discussed.
Explanation of the error: The plural subject options requires a plural verb, were discussed: Options were discussed. . . .
Test yourself: Can you find errors in the examples below?
1. I want to ensure that my grammar and punctuation is correct in every document I send out.
2. Each of the samples were labeled before shipment.
3. Here's three follow-up questions for you.
4. The need to improve our processes are important to everyone involved.
5. Testing showed that the internal temperature of these systems settle below the temperature displayed on the gauges.
6. Clear acceptance criteria needs to be established.
7. Proper segregation of duties do not exist between the employee performing the payroll reconciliation and the individual who updates the employee master list.
8. The approval and the modification agreement is sent to Loan Servicing.
9. There is not any substantial changes in any of the financial sections of this narrative.
10. We have not determined whether Mr. Frye's version of the events are accurate.
Every sentence had an error. Here are the correct subject-verb combinations:
1. grammar and punctuation are
2. Each . . . was labeled
3. Here are three
4. The need . . . is
5. temperature . . . settles
6. criteria need (Grammar sticklers view the word criteria as plural.)
7. segregation . . . does
8. approval and the modification agreement are
9. There are not any substantial changes
10. version . . . is
My Microsoft grammar and spelling checker was able to identify and correct all the errors except Numbers 1, 5, and 6. In Number 1, I am surprised Microsoft did not recognize the plural subject "grammar and punctuation." In Number 5, the subject temperature is followed by a prepositional phrase, "of these systems," which makes it challenging to identify the simple subject. In Number 6, my grammar and spelling checker must have loosened up about criteria and regarded it as singular.
The key to matching subjects and verbs is to recognize the simple subject, that is, the subject without any modifying phrases. For instance, in these sentences, ignore the words I have crossed out:
The key to matching subjects and verbs is to recognize the simple subject.
The need to balance our priorities and activities has become more pressing.
The demand for both skilled workers and day laborers increases daily.
We are not certain whether her description of the individuals in her classes is accurate.
How easily did you recognize the errors in subject-verb agreement? I welcome your comments and questions.
This past week, when I led the online class Writing Tune-Up for Peak Performance, I was surprised at the number of people who used the word less where they should have used fewer. Test yourself on the items below to find out how much you know before reading this lesson.
He would like to be able to express himself using fewer/less words.
Would you like to receive fewer/less email?
This checkout lane is for people who have fewer/less than 15 items.
Fewer/Less than 30 percent of participants could identify passive verbs.
Next time please give me fewer/less strawberries.
Can someone who is fewer/less than 44 inches tall ride this attraction?
She had fewer/less commuting problems when she lived in Seattle.
I leave for San Jose in fewer/less than two weeks.
He had fewer/less than $40 in his wallet when he arrived in New York.
I have fewer/less miles on my rewards program than I thought I had.
When I completed the test, I had used fewer five times and less five times. Do your numbers agree with mine?
Here are my answers:
1. fewer 2. less 3. fewer 4. Less 5. fewer 6. less 7. fewer 8. less 9. less 10. fewer
Rules of Fewer and Less
Fewer is used for individual items (rather than for bulk or quantity) that are plural nouns.Fewer is never used with a singular noun. Consider these examples from the test above:
1. He would like to be able to express himself using fewer words. (Each word is an item. Words is plural.)
3. This checkout lane is for people with fewer than 15 items. (Items is plural.)
5. Next time please give me fewer strawberries. (Each strawberry is an item. Strawberries is plural.)
7. She had fewer commuting problems when she lived in Seattle. (Each problem is an item.Problems is plural.)
10. I have fewer miles on my rewards program than I thought I had. (Each mile is an item. Miles is plural.)
The word less is used for bulk or quantity rather than individual items. It appears with singular nouns.
I wish the rules were that simple.
However, the phrase less than appears with plural and singular nouns. According to The Gregg Reference Manual, less than is used for periods of time, distance, amounts of money, quantities, and percentages. Garner's Modern American Usage adds measurements to that list. These examples from the test require less and less than:
2. Would you like to receive less email? (The email is in bulk; email is a singular noun.)
4. Less than 30 percent of participants could identify passive verbs. (30 percent is, of course, a percentage.)
6. Can someone who is less than 44 inches tall ride this attraction? (44 inches is a measurement or distance.)
8. I leave for San Jose in less than two weeks. (Two weeks is a period of time.)
9. He had less than $40 in his wallet when he arrived in New York. ($40 is an amount of money.)
Of course, common usage affects what is considered correct. With the prevalence of supermarket checkout lanes whose signs say "10 items or less" rather than "10 items or fewer," the phrase "or less" has become generally accepted. Written tasks are frequently assigned as "200 words or less" rather than "200 words or fewer."
I admit that I might choose "200 words or less" because that phrasing has begun to sound correct, the same way "It's me" works better than "It is I" these days. Although a strict grammarian would attack that position, we have to consider which language gets the message across more effectively in business communication.
Of my reference books, Garner's Modern American Usage has the best, most detailed explanations of the fewer vs. less issue. Garner offers this tip:
"If you have trouble distinguishing the two words, try substituting a phrase. If "not as much [as]" fits, make it less. If "not as many [as]" is better, use fewer.
How about another test? Decide on fewer or less in these sentences:
We need fewer/less than $90 to reach our goal.
I wish fewer/less individuals would walk through our meeting room.
We received fewer/less applications than we had expected.
He lives fewer/less than 50 miles from where he grew up.
Do you know why fewer/less asparagus was available this season?
Fewer/Less than half our dinners include meat.
His goal is to make fewer/less errors in punctuation.
Receiving fewer/less junk mail would make me happy.
She writes fewer/less than three memos a month.
The trend is toward using more machines and fewer/less employees.
Again I included five instances of fewer and five of less.
Compare your answers with mine:
1. less (amount of money) 2. fewer (individuals) 3. fewer (items) 4. less (distance) 5. less (bulk) 6. Less (portion, amount) 7. fewer (items) 8. less (bulk) 9. fewer (items) 10. fewer (individuals)
How well did you do? Do you agree with the explanations I shared? I welcome your suggestions.
In a comment on last week's pronoun tips and test, a reader named Jasmine asked for more examples of whomever. Whoever and whomever can be very tricky because they do not always play the role they seem to be playing in a sentence. Here are more examples of those tricky pronouns, followed by another test.
Reminder:Whoever is a subject pronoun. It serves as a subject of a verb.
Whoever is hungry can have the leftover pizza. (Whoever is the subject of the verb is, like "He is hungry.")
Give the package to whoever comes for it. (Whoever is the subject of the verb comes, like "He comes for it.")
I am happy with whoever wins. (Whoever is the subject of the verb wins, like "He wins.")
Whoever is also correct as a subject complement, with linking verbs such as is, are, and will be.
Whoever it was did not leave her name.
Whoever they are, I like their confidence.
Reminder:Whomever is an object pronoun. It serves as an object of a verb or a preposition.
Please invite whomever you choose. (Whomever is the object of the verb choose, like "You choose him.")
Whomever Kate marries is none of our business. (Whomever is the object of the verb marries, like "Kate marries him.")
I am eager to work with whomever Dale selects as my partner. (Whomever is the object of the verb selects, like "Dales selects her.")
Whomever Human Resources recommends as a consultant, we will still need to interview him or her. (Whomever is the object of the verb recommends, like "Human Resources recommends him.")
I will be glad to meet whomever Jon introduces me to. (Whomever is the object of the preposition to, like "Jon introduces me to him.")
TEST: Choose the correct pronoun in each sentence.
1. Whoever/Whomever you hire, I will respect your decision.
2. Whoever/Whomever volunteers to take minutes also needs to send out the agenda.
3. Whoever/Whomever Thalia used, he is obviously a great landscape designer.
4. Please reply to whoever/whomever Enno included on the To line.
5. These decisions should be left for whoever/whomever takes over Clara's job.
6. Whoever/Whomever survives the primary will face a prominent Democrat.
7. Whoever/Whomever the CEO recommends will undoubtedly be considered for the position.
8. We will interview whoever/whomever meets the criteria.
9. I spoke to whoever/whomever Yvette transferred me to.
10. Whoever/Whomever she is, this artist is fabulous.
Before you compare your answers with mine, check to be sure that half of your answers are whoever and half are whomever.