Episode 287: August 4, 2011
Today we’re discussing subjects that contain the word “and.” You generally think “plural” if you see an “and,” but that’s not always the case.
Simple Singular and Plural Subjects
Let’s start with some sentences that have definitely singular or definitely plural subjects. The subject in “The clown is juggling” is obviously singular; one clown is doing something. “Two clowns and the ringmaster are juggling” contains an “and,” and since three people are involved, that subject is plural.
Singular Compound Subjects with “And”
"Spaghetti and meatballs" can form a single dish and be singular.
Now for some subjects that contain an “and” but are singular. This might sound weird at first, but you probably say such sentences every day. Take these two singular sentences: “Peanut butter and jelly is available in the cafeteria,” and “Meat and potatoes was my grandfather’s favorite meal.” In these mouth-watering sentences, the two items combine to form a single unit—one dish—and this is the crux of the matter. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “When the nouns form ‘a collective idea’ or ‘a oneness of idea,’ the singular verb is appropriate” (1). Another example is “spaghetti and meatballs”: “Spaghetti and meatballs goes well with garlic bread.”
A Compound Subject that Describes a Single Person
You might also find yourself referring to one person in two ways in a sentence, and if you do so, you will use a singular verb. Consider this example in which the writer is saying her husband is also her best friend: “My husband and best friend likes doing the dishes.” Although the subject “my husband and best friend” contains an “and,” the subject refers to one person. If you use a plural verb and say, “My husband and best friend like doing the dishes,” then two people are scrubbing. In this case, your husband is not your best friend.
Different and Separable Compound Subjects
What if the ideas joined by “and” refer to more than one person or do not form one concept? Then, the sentence is plural. Noted grammarian Bryan Garner explains, “If two or more subjects joined by and are different and separable, they take a plural verb” (2). If you say, “Peanut butter and potatoes are my favorite foods,” you are listing two separate items that you like. I’ve never heard of the combined dish “peanut butter and potatoes.” If it did exist, however, it would take a singular verb.
Singular or Plural Subject?
Now, let’s analyze some contentious sentences. The subjects in these may or may not be plural, depending upon your point of view. First up is this sentence with a singular verb: “His humility and his decency reflects the very best of the American spirit.” Or should it be “reflect,” a plural verb? We need to assess whether “his humility and his decency” are two variations on a theme and therefore one thing, or if these two personal qualities are “different and separable.” They seem like separate ideas to me. A person could be decent but not so humble. Others may disagree with this point of view. An anonymous commenter on the Sentence Sleuth blog (3), where this sentence was criticized as Criminal Sentence 513, argued, “The author intends them to be considered as a unit, as a representation of a single quality, his ‘goodness.’ I think you can get away with either a singular or plural sense—it’s discretionary.”
There was even more discussion on the blog when it came to the following sentence (labeled Criminal Sentence 519): “Their capture and successful prosecution is what we want” (4). Some commenters argued that the police had one goal—to put the criminals behind bars—so capture and prosecution represented one idea. They therefore felt the verb should be singular. Others thought these two actions were distinct and the verb should be plural.
With sentences like these two, we may have to agree to disagree; you could make a coherent argument for either point of view. If you’d like to weigh in with your opinion, you can find both these criminal sentences at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.
Rewrite to Avoid Compound Subject Problems
If you come across this problem in your own writing, you’ll probably make someone unhappy no matter which kind of verb you choose. Your best chance for pleasing everyone is to recast the sentence so that you no longer have to wrestle with the idea of singular or plural. One way to rewrite the sentence about humility and decency is “He embodies the very best of the American spirit with his humility and his decency.” As for the second problematic sentence, you can very easily turn “Their capture and successful prosecution is what we want” into “We want to capture and successfully prosecute them.” It’s less wordy, too.
Singular and plural is not as easy a concept as it might seem (notice how I said, “singular and plural is”; here, we’re combining the two to refer to one grammatical concept). When you’re deciding between singular and plural, think about whether the items joined with “and” constitute one concept. A Sentence Sleuth blog reader pointed out that “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (5) is a good example of a single idea that comes with an “and.” If you don’t know which verb to choose, just rewrite your sentence and avoid the problem.