‘Is’ or ‘are’ – that is the question…

Posted on 12/11/2018 · Posted in Dialogos, Our languages, Recent news, Writing tips

For English, it’s the dividing line: on one side you have (apparently) well-educated (probably) first-language speakers; on the other, everyone else. Very simply put, subject-verb agreement means that singular subjects take singular verbs and plural subjects take plural verbs. But if concord is so simple and straight forward, why is it considered such a clear indicator of linguistic mastery?

Often, the answer lies in the fact that not everybody agrees on whether the subject of a sentence is singular or not. At first glance this seems daft. Most people can distinguish between one (singular) and more than one (plural).

But look at this headline: ‘Stellenbosch FC suffer first defeat of the season, but stay top of NFD log’. The verb ‘suffer’ is in the plural form. If you were to rewrite it, it would read ‘They suffer their first defeat’ – plural subject, plural verb. But the soccer club’s first team is one team. Surely it should be treated as a singular subject?

Traditionally, however, Commonwealth or former Commonwealth countries treat the names of sports teams (including references to the national side) as a placeholder for the plural subject ‘the players’. If you were to rewrite that sentence as ‘The players have suffered their first defeat’, you have subject-verb agreement.

Another type of example can be found in slogans used by companies. Every now and then, a company may receive a call to the effect of ‘Your company’s slogan is wrong. It should be “When precision and accuracy matter plural, not matters singular”.’ Are these callers correct?

Well, it depends on two interrelated perspectives. Firstly, whether the company views ‘precision and accuracy’ as one concept (in which case it would take a singular verb) and, secondly, what the jargon for that particular industry is. If it is quite normal within the industry to see ‘precision and accuracy’ as a single concept, then ‘precision and accuracy matters’. Just as with the sports teams, the usage convention in that field overrides the counting strategy (precision [one] plus accuracy [one] equals two, therefore plural verb) most people rely on to determine whether a singular or plural verb should be used.

All these variables underline two basic points. Firstly, that English is, shall we say, a variable language. And secondly, language is more than just a matter of counting.