As children we learn (and may also be taught) that singular nouns take singular verbs and plural nouns take plural verbs. This subject–verb agreement is also called concord; it sounds perfectly straightforward, but it often isn’t. Complications arise and mistakes slip in even when the numbers involved seem obvious.
In unedited writing it’s common to find nouns or noun phrases disagreeing with the verb, especially when a string of text comes between them and ends in an element with a different number. Though less common in edited prose, because it’s something editors look out for, examples do occur. Here’s one I read in Chase Novak’s horror novel Breed:
The thick gloomy shadows of the apartment itself, depressing on the face of it, is actually a kind of blessing to Amelie and Bernard, muting the visual impact of Bernard’s countless deformities and hiding, as well, the chaos of their quarters.
You can see how the conflict might have arisen: the apartment, itself, face and it are all singular and come between the actual grammatical subject shadows – which is plural – and its verb. So one or more of these intervening elements interfere(s) with the necessary agreement: The thick gloomy shadows… are a kind of blessing.
I saw another example recently in BuzzFeed’s ‘53 Signs Your Boyfriend Is Really Three Children In A Trenchcoat’:
The only time he ever posts selfies are when he’s with you.
Here we see the reverse kind of disagreement: a singular noun (time) is mismatched with a plural verb (are), probably because of the proximity of plural selfies. It should be: The only time… is when he’s with you. Some grammarians refer to this interference-by-proximity as attraction, false attraction, blind agreement, or the principle of proximity.
Similar mistakes crop up often in texts I proofread or edit. I suspect in most cases it arises through inattention, but there may sometimes be genuine uncertainty behind the phenomenon. If it’s any consolation to the writers, in Julius Caesar Shakespeare wrote: ‘The posture of your blows are yet unknown’, and many other skilled authors have fallen foul too.
Some constructions have a foot in both singular and plural camps. Nouns of multitude like team, jury and committee can be either, so long as the grammar is internally consistent – this is a form of notional agreement. Singular they and nouns like politics come under notional agreement too, as do compound subjects that may be considered as a single concept: Jelly and ice-cream is my favourite.
Grammatical agreement has no shortage of anomalies. To give you an idea of the complexity involved, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage devotes 15 tall columns to agreement, while Garner’s Modern American Usage has 18 subsections in its entry on subject–verb agreement.
Returning to the principle of proximity or attraction, MWDEU quotes from (and concurs with) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985) by Quirk et al.:
Conflict between grammatical concord and attraction through proximity tends to increase with the distance between the noun phrase head of the subject and the verb, for example when the postmodifier is lengthy or when an adverbial or a parenthesis intervenes between the subject and the verb. Proximity concord occurs mainly in unplanned discourse. In writing it will be corrected to grammatical concord if it is noticed.
The concluding phrase if it is noticed is worth emphasising. MWDEU’s examples, along with the ones I quote above and those I see every week in documents I’m editing, all testify to the frequency of such errors and to the need for editorial vigilance.
Moti Lieberman at The Ling Space says there is ‘a lot of discussion about what underlies this effect’.
I just came across an example in Myles na Gopaleen’s account of the first Bloomsday (or ‘J-Day’) in his Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times: ‘Every foreign-language quotation in any of his works known to me are wrong.’
There’s a conspicuous example in this Irish Examiner headline:
And an easily-missed one in the first line of this passage of a leading story in the Guardian: