Sentence Subjects: Looking Past Nouns and Strict Verb Agreement



Sentence subjects are typically obvious in English grammar. Many are nouns, and they take corresponding plural or singular verbs.

How then do we identify and explain the parts of speech in the following sentences?

1. Buying houses and flipping them has been netting him a small fortune.
2. To be alone is to find true knowledge of oneself.
3. My mentor and friend has retired after 30 years of loyal service.
4. Who had removed the page from the file was creating much debate.

Other grammatical elements beyond nouns can serve as sentence subjects. They also can bend the rules of subject-verb agreement.

Sentence 1 leads with Buying houses and flipping them, both gerund phrases, verbs functioning as nouns and taking direct objects.

You’ll also note the sentence verb, has been netting, is singular. If the sentence has a compound gerund subject (buying and flipping), the verb should be plural, right? In this case, the two gerunds combine as one unit and therefore command a singular verb.

Another sentence including similar information could be written as Buying houses and flipping them have been netting (plural verb) him a small fortune. Both the plural and the singular treatments are grammatically acceptable according to the writer’s intent.

In sentence 2, the subject is an infinitive phrase, the word to plus the present form of a verb, also called the infinitive stem. The subject, To be alone, is followed by the linking verb is and then by another infinitive phrase as the subject complement (to find true knowledge of oneself).

Sentence 3 includes what appears to be another compound subject, mentor and friend, and yet the verb is singular. This is because one person was two things—a mentor and a friend—to the writer, creating one unit with plural components and a singular verb. Here too we have acceptable grammatical style determined by context and meaning.

In the last sentence, the subject is an entire relative clause, Who had removed the page from the file. In this example, one clause serves as a singular unit and corresponds with a singular verb, was creating. Other relative pronouns that can lead clausal sentence subjects include whom, whose, whoever, which, whichever, what, whatever, and that.

Examples

Whose shoes were on the front porch perplexes the investigators.
What songs the band will play remains unknown even to those close to the group.

We see that sentence subjects can extend well beyond nouns, and subject-verb agreement can sometimes adjust based on whether the writer wishes to group or separate compound items. This understanding adds to our grammatical toolbox and further enhances our expressive versatility. 

 

Pop Quiz

Identify either the type of subject or the correct verb in the following sentences:

1) To run for local office (gerund phrase / infinitive phrase) has always been his ambition.

2) That they are gifted guitarists (relative clause / gerund phrase) is obvious.

3) Hunting and fishing (is / are) my favorite (way / ways) to spend a day off.

4) Reading three books a week (infinitive phrase / gerund phrase) keeps her intellectually sharp.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1) To run for local office (gerund phrase / infinitive phrase) has always been his ambition.

2) That they are gifted guitarists (relative clause / gerund phrase) is obvious.

3) Hunting and fishing (is / are) my favorite (way / ways) to spend a day off.
Both the singular (is / way) and the plural (are / ways) would be grammatically accurate according to the writer’s intent.

4) Reading three books a week (infinitive phrase / gerund phrase) keeps her intellectually sharp.

Posted on Wednesday, November 15, 2017, at 12:58 am

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14 Comments on Sentence Subjects: Looking Past Nouns and Strict Verb Agreement

14 responses to “Sentence Subjects: Looking Past Nouns and Strict Verb Agreement”

  1. Kirubanidhi says:

    The example of relative clause in the sentence “Who had removed the page from the file was creating much debate” does not appear to be complete as the other examples given later in the text.

  2. Patricia A Eggman says:

    When I was a child in the 1960s, I was taught that when we are listing things the next to the last word will not have a comma before but an “and”. This is causing great distress in a new class I am taking.
    Example; “I love to run, jump and sing. They want me to write” “I love to run, jump, and sing. I am crying WRONG! Please tell me they changed it and I will understand. But, I will never write it this way!

    • Our Rule 1 of Commas recommends the use of the Oxford (or series) comma to separate words or word groups in a simple series of three or more items. In American English usage, many writers and editors feel that a comma should precede and with three or more items in a series. Most newspapers and magazines drop the Oxford comma in a simple series, apparently feeling it’s unnecessary. Fiction and nonfiction books generally prefer the Oxford comma. Writers must decide Oxford or no Oxford and not switch back and forth, except when omitting the Oxford comma could cause confusion. See our posts Commas Before and in a Series, The Oxford Comma, and Lack of Commas Costs Company Millions in Dispute for more information.

  3. Rahman says:

    Which one is grammatically correct?
    3 nos. of bridge piers were constructed on the river bed
    or
    3 nos. of bridge pier were constructed on the river bed
    Please give an explanation.

  4. Chad Gardner says:

    Help, please! I’m a 5th grade teacher. Our standardized benchmark assessment contained this question:

    I followed David into the room where we ____________ television together last weekend.

    A. were watching
    B. had watched

    The answer key for the test says “B” is the correct choice. I agree that “B” completes the sentence in a correct way, but is there an explanation for why “A” would be incorrect?

    • “Had watched” is the past perfect tense. It implies that one event happened before another in the past.
      “Were watching” is the past continuous tense. It implies an action that began in the past and is a continuing or incomplete action.

  5. Elizabeth Neace says:

    My husband and I were discussing the correct word, “I” or “me,” for this sentence:

    They are concerned, just like you and …. (“I” or “me”)

    My contention is that there is an understood “are” following the pronoun, and the correct pronoun in this sentence would be “I.”

    Please advise.

  6. Brad Johnston says:

    “Who had removed the page from the file?” is incorrect on the face of it. Who would put the word “had” in front of the past tense verb “removed”?
    “Who removed the page from the file? is correct.

    .

    • The complete sentence is “Who had removed the page from the file was creating much debate.” The sentence is grammatically correct. “Had removed” is the past perfect tense. It implies that one event happened before another in the past. Also see our November 20, 2017, response to Kirubanidhi.

  7. Harvey Wachtelp says:

    I don’t understand how “reading three books a week” is a gerund phrase. I don’t see a gerund at all. A gerund is supposed to be a present-participle form used as a noun, as in “his constant talking drives me crazy.” Note that “talking,” like any noun, takes an adjective modifier.

    But “reading three books a week” has “reading” taking a direct object. Nouns do not take direct objects. Moreover, if you wanted to add a modifier, it would be an adverb, such as “his consistently reading three books a week.” Nouns do not take adverb modifiers.

    “Reading” is not a gerund here. It is a non-finite verb, very similar in function to an infinitive. Noam Chomsky recognized this in his seminal work “Syntactic Structures,” where he described infinitive phrases and present-participle phrases with the same production rule.

    The distinction needs to be made between a gerund phrase like “his constant smoking of cigars” and a non-finite-verb phrase like “his constantly smoking cigars.”

    • A gerund phrase can include a direct object. The phrase “reading three books a week” comprises the following parts of speech: reading (gerund); three (adjective); books (noun as direct object); a week (adverbial phrase with “a” meaning “per”).

      You are correct in that nouns do not take direct objects, but a gerund is a verb functioning as a noun. As such, it carries part of its verb properties with it, making it an exception to the common rule.

      “Reading” also is a gerund in the phrase “his consistently reading three books a week.”

      The gerund usage is perhaps best illustrated by looking at the examples in complete sentences:
      “Reading three books a week [gerund-phrase subject] keeps [verb] her [pronoun/direct object] intellectually sharp [adjective phrase].”
      “His consistently reading three books a week [gerund-phrase subject] keeps [verb] him [pronoun/direct object] intellectually sharp [adjective phrase].” (In this sentence, “consistently” is an adverb modifying the verb-as-noun [gerund] “reading.” Our post Can the Versatile Adverb Modify a Noun? offers more insight into this topic.)

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