Disagreeable Verbs

Subject-Verb Agreement: 8 Questions & Answers | Please Please Me | Linking Verbs: 3 Questions & Answers | Modals | Shall We? | Split Infinitives | If Subjunctives Were Outlawed: 3 Questions & Answers | Tense? Voice? Mood? | Irregular Verbs | Participles: 3 Questions & Answers

Subject-Verb Agreement

Subject-Verb Agreement Question 1: Found you on the net, and hope you can help. I am typing a book for a man and we have a disagreement on the correct verb usage with the word "all."

The sentence is "If all you have are lemons, make lemonade." He wants it to read, "If all you have is lemons, make lemonade."

Which one is correct?

Thank you for your help.


Verbs must agree with their subjects. "All" can be either singular or plural — depending on the noun. Since "lemons" is plural, the sentence should read, "If all you have are lemons . . . ."

Subject-Verb Agreement Question 2: Something has been bothering me (grammatically, that is). There are these T-shirts around that say things like: "Soccer [football, fishing, etc.] is life... the rest is details"

Shouldn't it be

"Soccer is life, the rest ARE details"


"Soccer is life, the rest is DETAIL"???

It's really bothering me, if you can explain this to me, I'd GREATLY appreciate it... I've been trying to find an answer to no avail!

Answer: The question is, "the rest of what?" The rest of life? If that is the case, then "the rest is details" is correct. "Rest" in this sense is an uncountable, collective noun; such nouns nearly always take the singular.

The expression still does not make sense, however. How can there be a "rest of life" when one has just declared that X = life absolutely?

Subject-Verb Agreement Question 3: Which is correct:

All I have is two dollars, or
All I have are two dollars?


Answer: "All I have is two dollars."

The subject of the sentence is "all" — which follows the same rule as none, any, some, more, and most. If it is followed by an "of" phrase, it may be plural: All of my dollars are invested in stocks. Without such a phrase, these indefinite pronouns usually take a singular verb.

Finally, when measurements such as money, time, and weight are considered as a unit, use a singular verb: All she weighs is 110 pounds; all he has is 3 hours to study.

Subject-Verb Agreement Question 4: What about:

Two dollars are all I have, or
Two dollars is all I have?

Answer: "Two dollars are all I have." The subject is dollars — a plural noun.

Subject-Verb Agreement Question 5: Would you use singular (has) or plural (have) in the following sentence.

But, as we all know, the welfare of children and the importance of the arts in their lives has been (or have been) perhaps her greatest passion.

Answer: The compound subject — "the welfare . . .and the importance" — takes the plural verb "have."

"Passion" should be "passions."

Subject-Verb Agreement Question 6: "It is I who (is, am) guilty!" Please cite pronoun/verb agreement rule in this case. Thank you.

Answer: I who am responding to your question say (not says) that the verb must agree in person and number with the personal pronoun. "It" and "who" refer to "I," first person singular. Recall, for example, the greeting of the Roman gladiators: "Hail, Caesar: We who are about to die salute you." Adding "it is" would not change the governing personal pronoun, "we": It is we who are (not is) about to die, and we salute you.

Subject-Verb Agreement Question 7: Keeping the below sentence the same, except for this issue of "are" vs "is", which usage is correct and why??!

Included with this letter ARE (?IS?) an overview of the Value Express program, our most recent catalog and a small gift of thanks.

We have debated endlessly. Your help is very much appreciated.

Answer: Use "are" because the subject must agree with the verb. If you shuffle the elements slightly, the sentence would read, "An overview of the Value Express program, our most recent catalog, and a small gift of thanks are included with this letter."

The subject of the passive verb to be included is "an overview of the Value Express program, our most recent catalog, and a small gift of thanks." A compound subject, it takes a plural verb.

Subject-Verb Agreement Question 8:

Eighteen inches of snow blankets area.

Eighteen inches of snow blanket area.

I have asked a lot of people which of the above sentences is grammatically correct, and everyone seems to agree it that the former is correct. I do not disagree, but what I seek is a master reference to support the position that the first sentence is correct.

The only explanation I have been offered is that the first "sounds right," which I refuse to accept as the sole justification. After all, I could argue that inches is the subject of the sentence, the "of snow" a prepositional phrase, which means that the second of the sentences is correct.

My question, then, is what usage reference source supports the first of the two sentences as correct, and why?

Answer: The subject and verb in your first example do not agree, even though the error "sounds right" to some. As any complete usage reference will tell you, writers editing for agreement should disregard the phrases or clauses following the subject. Correcting agreement problems, in fact, is often simple when you remove the intervening phrase or clause:

The design of those houses [is, are] what buyers want.
The kittens found in the alley [looks, look] healthy.
Three glasses of milk [was, were] set out for lunch.

Therefore: Eighteen inches . . . blanket area.

The Gregg Reference Manual, by the way, discusses nearly every problem of usage and mechanics one might imagine.

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Please Please Me

Question: What is the verb in the sentence: Please bring me a glass of milk? The usual answer is "bring". However does the inclusion of "Please" in the sentence cause "bring" to become an implied infinitive, making "please" the verb? This question is courtesy of a skit from Mad TV, and is now the subject of a wager.

Thanks for your help.

Answer: Mad TV as a grammar authority? Please!

"Please" in your example is an adverb. "Bring" is a verb, used imperatively. "Bring me a glass of milk" is modified (and softened as a command) by "please."

The Beatles (a Neolithic rock group) understood the distinction between an adverb and a verb, as evidenced in their song, "Please Please me (Oh, yeah)."

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Linking Verbs

Linking Verb Question 1: Here's a grammar question: In a recent episode of "NYPD Blue" one of the characters gestured to a group of men and said, "Are those they?" (He was asking a police officer whether the group of men were the ones who mugged him.) Is this proper usage?

Answer: Yes! And frankly, I am amazed that an American television program bothered with correct usage.

Why is it correct? Most verbs have objects, and with those verbs we correctly use the objective pronoun: me, us, him, her, them. Look at these examples:

She talked to him.

He asked me.

Give them the schedule.

The verb "to be" works differently; it belongs to a class of verbs called "linking verbs." The verb "to be" (am, is, are, was, were, have/has/had been, will be, and so forth) acts like an equals sign: what is on one side of the "equation" should be the same as what is on the other side:

You are K ("you = K"). K is you.

You are he ("you = he") — not "You are him" because of what happens when you reverse the words: "He is you." (We wouldn't say, "Him is you.")

So, when someone calls you and asks to speak to KS, you would be correct in replying, "This is he." Similarly, when the character pointed to the men, he or she correctly used "they" instead of "them." (We wouldn't say "them is those.")

Linking Verb Question 2: What is the rule about answering a phone inquiry such as, "So and so please." I believe it is proper to say,"This is he (she)." My logic, however says it should be "him (her)" using the objective case. Please clarify. Thank you.

Answer: So-called "linking" verbs — be, feel, seem, look, and become — use subject complements, rather than direct objects in their predicates. The complement must be a noun, a pronoun in the subjective case, or an adjective. Linking verbs essentially act as equals signs, so the elements on each side must be in the same categories:

Both subject and complement are pronouns:

This = he.

He = this.

Both subject and complement are nouns or pronouns:

Jane became a citizen.

Jane = a citizen.

Jane is she; she is Jane.

Jane = she; she = Jane.

Subject is a noun or pronoun and complement is an adjective:

The mountains are rugged.

Her flowers look beautiful.

They seem happy.

Arnold felt bad (not badly).

Linking Verb Question 3: Your answer on the "I feel bad/badly" answer intrigued me. Since you said bad should be used, because it follows a linking verb, does that mean one should say "I don't feel good." instead of "I don't feel well."

Answer: You can say either, with a shade of difference in the meaning. "I don't feel good" means you have something wrong with you, either physically or mentally--a headache, a bad stomach, a sense of unease. "I don't feel well" means you do not feel healthy. ("Well" here is an adjective, synonymous with "healthy.")

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Question: What is the grammatical term for the phrase "can be?" I know it's passive, but I seem to recall a term of "future possible" or something along those lines.

I'm re-writing marketing materials for my company, and trying to purge passive voice and create a more forceful approach. I want to show our products' immediate solutions, not potential solutions.

EXAMPLE: Frequently used searches can be named and saved for future use, given keyboard equivalents if desired, and called up in seconds.

Answer: You have an incomplete verb phrase here: "can be (what?)." The complete verb phrase would be "can be (somethinged)."

"Can" is a modal--in the same group as words like should, ought, might, may, and so forth. "Be" is another verb, with this conjugation: I am, you are, he/she/it is, and so forth.

Passive verbs are formed by combining "be" and the past participle of a verb: is drawn, are named, was called up. Modals (like "can") may be added (note the passive in the last clause!). For example: can be drawn, can be named, can be called up.

Revising your company's materials by reducing the number of passive constructions is a good idea! You can change the example you give to the active voice:

You can name frequently used searches and save them for future use. If you want to, you can also give the searches a keyboard 'name' and call them up in seconds.

Have you read my article, The Passive Engineer? If not, take a look; it has several suggestions that might help your editing.

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Shall We?

Question: Please advise me on the correct usage of the word "shall." Thanks

Answer: Lawyers use shall to mean "must." Extremely precise (and rather old-fashioned) speakers use shall instead of will with the first person: "Before 1998 dawns, I shall catch up on all my correspondence"; "shall we dance?"; and so forth.

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Split Infinitives

Dear Readers,

Split infinitives are no longer considered a heinous usage crime. Actually, English infinitives were made to be split. Eighteenth century grammarians modeled many rules on Latin, whose infinitives reside unsplit in one word — hence the rule you and I were taught.

But English infinitives need two words, and sometimes preserving the artificial unity of the phrase sounds awkward ("to go boldly?" "boldly to go?"). Modern usage has therefore relaxed the prescription against splitting infinitives.

For the sake of style and clarity, however, writers should usually put the adverb after the object of the infinitive:

We need to make a decision immediately.
She wanted to study the plan carefully.

Or put the adverb after the infinitive, when it is an intransitive verb:

They need to exercise vigorously.

But sometimes splitting the infinitive sounds better than the alternatives:

They asked her to personally guarantee that the project would meet the deadline.
. . . to boldly go where no one has gone before.

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If Subjunctives Were Outlawed. . . .

Question: If it were up to you, which of the following, if any, would you select to best complete this sentence?

I would have preferred

(a) not to have been called
(b) not to be called
(c) not being called

And also there's this:

I would have liked

(a) to go
(b) to have gone

I will consult your web pages regarding use of the subjunctive in English with regard to the usage of was vs. were (e.g., the very first sentence of this letter was enough to induce arrhythmia).

Answer: As a rule, maintain parallel structure:

I would have preferred
(a) not to have been called

I would have liked
(b) to have gone

Were I being formal, I should say, "I should have preferred" and "I should have liked."

Regarding information on the subjunctive, here are more questions and answers.

Subjunctive Question 2: I recently got into an argument over a certain issue of English grammar. The sentence in question read like this — I wish there was a way to . . My Spanish translation friend not-so-kindly informed me that this sentence is subjunctive and should read "I wish there were a way . . "

I guess I understand the reason for using were because of the existence of "I wish" in order to express uncertainty or the contrary, but is the use of subjunctive still in such strict practice today? If you wrote "I wish there was a way to get this question right" would this sentence be marked incorrect?

And what about the nature of the direct object? In any other case besides "I wish" or "I doubt" it would seem silly to not take into account the plural or singular nature of the direct object. For example, "There were a book on the table" or "There was ducks walking down the road" are both obviously wrong. Any explanation about these examples or the general usage of the subjunctive and its necessity in proper English would be greatly appreciated.

Answer:Thank you for writing. If I were in charge of the grammar rules, I might strike the subjunctive from our verb forms. That is not the case, however; the subjunctive still lives.

It indicates, among other things, a wish ("Long Live the Queen!), a demand ("He insisted that he be allowed a rebuttal"), or a statement contrary to fact ("Were I perfect, I should make no errors").

The subjunctive frequently appears in sentences beginning with "if" ("if I were the king of the forest," "if I were a rich man," and so forth) and in clauses with "as if" and "as though": "She acts as if she had not a care in the world"; "they talk as though they knew the future."

It often appears, as you note, after verbs like "wish": "I wish I were in France." But it also appears on its own: "Were I in France, I would use the subjunctive a lot." These uses of the subjunctive employ the past tense of the verb. The subjunctive of the verb "to be" uses the third person plural past tense.

Unlike other Indo-European languages, however, English usually needs a marker for the subjunctive — often "if." So we usually do not say "were there a book on the table," but instead, "If there were a book on the table . . . ."

The subjunctive is used in still other ways, with other tenses — in statements, for example, that urge or command: "I insist that he behave."

For the subjunctive in the past tense, use the past perfect (had been): "Had I been at the airport, I should/would have given you a ride home."

Subjunctive Question 3 (from Spain): Which one of the following is (unless both are) correct:

I prefer that Mary do it, or
I prefer that Mary does it?


Answer: The first is proper English; strong requests require the subjunctive. The second is common English. Technically, it is not correct; but practically, you will hear and read it often.

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Tense? Voice? Mood?

Question: What is the tense of the verb of the independent clause in this sentence?

"Awards should have been given to those who had studied all night."

Answer: "Should have been given" is a perfect conditional in the passive voice (whew!). "Had studied" is the past perfect, active, indicative form of the verb.

Question, continued: Thanks, but do we designate which perfect tense? My Latin folks here said future perfect conditional. Is that right or is it present perfect conditional?

Answer: I do not think the future perfect conditional exists in English. In any event, "shall/will have been given" would simply be the future perfect, passive voice. In the example you give, the action is all in the past; the idea of futurity in the past is conveyed by the perfect conditional (should/would have + past participle).

I just consulted A Practical English Grammar (A. J. Thomson & A.V. Martinet, Oxford: OUP, 1986). It lists only the present conditional ("should give," "should be given") and perfect conditional ("should have given," "should have been given") — no past, present, or future perfect: just perfect.

I suppose the modal takes the place of present/past/future auxiliaries. One cannot say, for instance, "should had been given."

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Irregular Verbs

Question (from Bahrain): Why there are irregular verbs?

Answer: Irregular verbs are old verbs. The most irregular verb, for example, is the verb "to be," an ancient (and highly irregular) verb in all Indo-European languages.

"Be" is irregular in all its parts, except for the command form ("Be good") and the present participle ("being"): am, is, are,was, were, being, been. If it were regular — like the verb "to walk" — it would be conjugated thus: be, bes, beed, being, beed.

Most irregular verbs are irregular only in the past and the past participle: saw/seen; went/gone; blew/blown. Some of these verbs have actually become regular over the years.

For instance, the past tense of "to dive" used to be "dove"; now the preferred form is the regularly formed "dived." Linguists believe that the trend will continue until nearly all English verbs are regularly formed. "Be" may be the holdout, however.

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Participles — 3 Questions & Answers

Participle Question 1: How can you tell the difference between past tense and past participial?

Answer: For irregular verbs the past tense and past participle look different: sang, sung; saw, seen; wrote, written; went, gone; and so forth. For regular verbs, they look exactly the same. The only way you can tell them apart is by their use in a sentence (the past participle will use have/has/had or some form of be):

I have often walked down this street before; I was walked by my dog regularly; I walked to the beach every morning last summer.

Participle Question 2: In hyphenated adjectival phrases, such as "oil-base(d) paint" or "medium-size(d) box", should the "d" be included or not? Why?

Answer: Yes, include the "d." The "d" makes the words participles, and participles can function as adjectives. Otherwise, the words "base" and "size" function as nouns, and generally speaking, one does not use nouns to modify other nouns (like "paint" and "box").

Participle Question 3: I am a lawyer. I find that most lawyers these days invariably use the word "stricken" instead of "struck" in legal contexts, usually for the past tense ("the document was stricken from the record") or for the subjunctive ("I ask that his testimony be stricken.").

I think that "struck" is the better usage, although I am willing to consider that "stricken" may be one of those particularized variants on the order of "hanged" vs. "hung."

Which do you think is proper?

Thanks very much.

Answer: Hmmm . . . interesting question. Either is fine, though as you note, the prevailing usage prefers "stricken."

"Stricken" is one of the past participles for the verb "to strike." The other past participle is "struck," which is also the simple past tense: he strikes the document from the record; he struck the document from the record; he has struck/stricken the document from the record.

The examples you cite use the passive form of the verb, the formula for which is "be + past participle": "to be stricken" or "to be struck." So "the document was stricken from the record (by whom?)" is equivalent to "the document was struck from the record (by whom?)." The choice is yours!

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