Have you ever noticed something strange about sentences involving prices or distances?
Do you ever wonder why Americans use expressions like “$50 is too much!” or “Ten miles is really far”?
In today’s Everyday Grammar, we will explore unusual cases of what we call subject-verb agreement.
We will look at sentences in which English speakers use plural nouns and noun phrases with singular verbs. These nouns and noun phrases often involve things such as time, money, distance or mathematics.
Let’s begin with a few definitions.
The term subject-verb agreement means that the subject and the verb agree in number. So a singular noun takes a singular verb. Here is an example:
Joe works at a restaurant.
The subject, Joe, is singular. That explains why we use the word works, the singular form of the verb.
If the subject were plural, the verb would be different, as in:
Joe and Tom work at a restaurant.
Joe and Tom are two people. That is why we use work, the plural form of the verb.
This is the basic idea of subject-verb agreement. However, English speakers do not always use singular nouns with singular verbs, as we will see.
#1 Time, money, distance
When the subject of a sentence involves time, money or distance, English speakers do not use subject-verb agreement in the way that you might expect.
Here is an example. Imagine you hear these two statements:
One dollar is too much!
Five dollars is too much!
In the first sentence, the subject is one dollar. One dollar is singular. The verb be is also singular.
In the second sentence, the subject is five dollars. Five dollars is plural. But you might also notice that the verb be is singular.
This unusual pattern demonstrates what we said earlier: expressions of time, money and distance often take a singular verb.
Popular culture offers many examples of this usage. Here is one: The American rock group Modest Mouse has a song called “A Life of Arctic Sounds.” The words go like this:
800 miles is a long drive inside a car
900 miles is a long long long long ways in a car
And 1000 miles is a LONG DRIVE INSIDE A CAR!!!!!!!
Even as the number of miles increase in the song, the main verb, be, stays singular.
When the subject of a sentence involves math, it also often takes a singular verb.
Many children, when learning the multiplication tables, memorize the following words:
Five times five is 25.
And when learning addition, boys and girls repeat the following words:
Two plus two equals four.
In both cases, the expression about math takes a singular verb – in our examples, the words is and equals, respectively.
Popular culture has examples of math and subject-verb agreement.
In the following song, American singer Kelly Clarkson criticizes a man. She sings the following:
And I may not be Einstein
But I know dumb plus dumb equals you
Dumb plus dumb equals you
The next time you are listening to someone speaking American English, try to find examples of subject-verb agreement. Ask yourself the following: When does the person use normal subject-verb agreement? When do they not use normal subject-verb agreement?
Asking yourselves these kinds of questions will help you learn patterns in English.
I'm John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
plural – adj. involving two or more
phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence
singular – adj. grammar: showing no more than one thing
pattern – n. a repeated design or plan
multiplication table – n. a list showing the products of two numbers (such as 1 through 12)
indie – adj. not connected with or created by a major producer of music or movies; short for the word independent
dumb – adj. lacking in intelligence; stupid
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