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“Sales Are” or “Sales Is”?

John from Buffalo, New York, wrote today to ask a question about subject-verb agreement. Because he is the guy everyone turns to at work when they have a grammar question and because he could not find the answer in three reference manuals, I am happy to help. I don’t want the entire department to think John is slipping.

John asked which of these is correct:

“Tobacco sales is the cause . . . ” OR “Tobacco sales are the cause . . . “

The answer is “sales are.” Here is why:

John has chosen the plural subject sales. It requires the plural verb are.

John and his coworkers may have been confused by the singular word cause. But the verb doesn’t need to agree with what comes after it (in this case, what grammarians call a “subject complement”). The verb needs to agree with the subject, sales.

Graphic illustrating the usage of "sales are" or "sales is". This depends on whether the subject and verb are plural or singular. Examples of the correct usage are: "The sales of tobacco are the cause..." and "The sale of tobacco is the cause..."

Here are other ways he might have structured the sentence:

Sales of tobacco are the cause . . .
The sale of tobacco is the cause . . .
Tobacco sales have caused . . .
Tobacco sales cause . . . [Cause is a plural verb; the singular is causes.]

Here are other examples like John’s:

Fortune cookies are the only dessert served.
Model trains are his hobby.
Comice pears are the only fruit we grow.
Mysteries are his favorite genre.


Getting the answers is John’s specialty. [Here the subject is getting–not answers.]

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

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