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Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large
Compound Subjects and Verb Number
Monday July 26th 2010
Question
Compound Subjects and Verb Number
Answer

One of our readers asks about when compound subjects take a plural verb and when they take a singular verb. Editor Kory Stamper offers some helpful tips.

Most ESL and EFL learners know that the verb's number in a sentence must match the subject's number. That is, if the subject is singular, the verb must be singular, and if the subject is plural, the verb must be plural:

SINGULAR SUBJECT: The dog barks every morning.
PLURAL SUBJECT: The dogs bark every morning.

This is called subject-verb agreement. In simple sentences, like the ones above, it is relatively easy to check the subject-verb agreement. But subject-verb agreement is more difficult to determine in complex sentences and in questions. Reader Vam asks specifically about the subject-verb agreement in the questions, "What is her name and date of birth?" and "Who are John and Mark?"

When a sentence has more than one subject per verb, those subjects form a compound subject. Compound subjects can be singular, plural, or a mix of both:

TWO SINGULAR: The dog and the cat bother me.
TWO PLURAL: The dogs and the cats bother me.
ONE SINGULAR, ONE PLURAL: The dog and cats bother me.

Compound subjects can also be joined by "and," "or" (sometimes "either...or"), and "nor" (sometimes "neither...nor"):

The dog and the cat...
(Either) The dog or the cat...
(Neither) The dog nor the cat...

Deciding which verb to use can be tricky. Here are the general rules:

1. A compound subject whose parts are joined by and usually takes a plural verb regardless of whether those parts are plural or singular:

TWO SINGULAR: The dog and the cat bother me.
TWO PLURAL: The dogs and cats fight all the time.
ONE SINGULAR, ONE PLURAL: Joe and the kids need me.

2. A compound subject made up of two singular parts that are joined by or or nor takes a singular verb:

(Either) James or John knows who is coming to the party.
(Neither) James nor John knows who is coming to the party.

3. A compound subject made up of one singular part and one plural part that are joined by or or nor must use a verb whose number matches the number of the part of the subject that is closest to the verb:

CORRECT: (Either) The dog or the kids were making a racket downstairs. [kids were...]
CORRECT: (Either) The kids or the dog was making a racket downstairs. [dog was...]
INCORRECT: (Either) The dog or the kids was making a racket downstairs.
INCORRECT: (Either) The kids or the dog were making a racket downstairs.

CORRECT: (Neither) Joe nor the kids want pizza. [kids want...]
CORRECT: (Neither) The kids nor Joe wants pizza. [Joe wants...]
INCORRECT: (Neither) Joe nor the kids wants pizza.
INCORRECT: (Neither) The kids nor Joe want pizza.

There are two exceptions to these rules.

Exception 1. When the parts of a compound subject are joined by "and" but are generally thought to be a single unit, they take a singular verb, not a plural verb:

CORRECT: Peanut butter and jelly is my favorite.
INCORRECT: Peanut butter and jelly are my favorite.
CORRECT: Two and two equals four.
INCORRECT: Two and two equal four.

Exception 2. When the parts of a compound subject are joined by "and" but the subject is modified by the words "each" or "every", the subject takes a singular verb, not a plural verb:

CORRECT: Every boy and girl gets a merit certificate. [every boy gets...every girl gets]
INCORRECT: Every boy and girl get a merit certificate.
CORRECT: Each business and restaurant has to display a business license. [each business has to...each restaurant has to...]
INCORRECT: Each business and restaurant have to display a business license.

When it comes to subject-verb agreement in questions, you must answer the question first to see if the answer is the object of the question or the subject of the question. The answers to both of the questions Vam asks are subjects, so the verbs need to agree with the subjects.

In the second question, "John and Mark" is a compound subject joined by "and," so it requires a plural verb:

Who _____ John and Mark? John and Mark are my neighbors. --> Who are John and Mark?

The first question is trickier. In American English, "name and date of birth" are seen together so often that they are often considered to be a single unit. Since that is the case, it is more idiomatic to use the singular verb here, as is noted in Exception 1 above. The preferred construction, then, is "What is her name and date of birth?"

If you are not sure whether to use a plural or singular verb, you can always split the compound subject and use two separate sentences with simple subjects instead:

What is her name? What is her date of birth?

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