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Unit 20: Subject agreement

QUESTION

A question from Lachlan Brown:

Hello I have a question about when to use "is" and "are".

I was told by a friend that I sentence I wrote was incorrect because I used "is" when I should have used "are". The sentence I wrote was: "His biggest problem is his inaccuracies." My friend said I should have written: "His biggest problem are his inaccuracies."

My understanding of how to use these words is that "is" is used when talking about a singular noun and "are" is used when the noun is plural. I realise that "inaccuracies" is plural, but I used "is" because "problem" is singular. Can you tell me which noun in my sentence determines when "is" or "are" should be used?


ANSWER


Susan Fearn:

Firstly, Lachlan asks whether the sentence 'his biggest problem is his inaccuracies' is right or wrong. He used it and one of his colleagues said it was wrong! The good news, Lachlan, is it's you who is right.

The main actor or subject of the sentence is 'his biggest problem', and this is singular. So the verb in the sentence should agree with the subject. The second actor, the object, is the plural term 'his inaccuracies', but the verb doesn't need to agree with this.

So it's all a question of agreement. In English, the normal word order is subject, verb, object.

My cat (subject) climbs (verb) trees (object)

The verb should agree with the subject, not the object. So cat and climb are agreeing - my cat climbs.

But even first language users of English sometimes have a problem when the sentence has more than one clause - and here's an example.

My sister, but not her friends, is coming to dinner.
We might be tempted to say are coming to dinner. But you don't have to because the verb should agree with my sister. The not her friends section is just additional information.



Susan Fearn has taught English in Europe, Japan and China and has made programmes for BBC Learning English in the past. She is currently teaching English for Journalism and Public Relations at the University of Westminster in London.



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