Drawing the Subject Out of Hiding



We typically know what a sentence subject is and where to find it:

Mary baked the cake.
The train left on time.
Baseball games are long.

Those with a keen eye—as well as those who have read our rules on subject-verb agreement—will also spot the subjects in the following sentences (and understand why the verbs are singular or plural). That includes subjects that can be sneaky:

The group of players is boarding the bus.
My sister or my brother runs the store whenever Dad has the day off.
Either the plates or the platter has to go in that box.
Surf and turf is my favorite meal.
Greed, as well as pride, often leads to conflict.

At other times, sentences might include information with even less obvious subjects that lead us off our grammatical trails.

For example, what are the subjects in the following sentences? 

Foods fortified with vitamin B12 or a B12 supplement [need/needs] to be consumed by those following a strict plant-based diet without any animal products. (one subject, foods, or two subjects, foods, B12 supplement?)

Muscle gained with regular weight training and a protein diet [contribute/contributes] to a leaner and stronger physique. (one subject, muscle, or two subjects, muscle, protein diet?) 

The thought of shopping or relaxation by the pool [make/makes] Juanetta happy. (one subject, thought, or two subjects, thought, relaxation?) 

You might never know the answer unless you have access to the writer. We can serve our audience by revising such sentences before releasing them to be read.

One quick fix is to be clearer with our prepositional phrases:

Foods fortified with vitamin B12 or by a B12 supplement need to be consumed by those following a strict plant-based diet without any animal products. (one plural subject modified by two prepositional phrases; plural verb)

Muscle gained with regular weight training and with a protein diet contributes to a leaner and stronger physique. (singular subject modified by two prepositional phrases; singular verb)

The thought of shopping or of relaxation by the pool makes Juanetta happy. (singular subject modified by two prepositional phrases; singular verb)

Another solution is to apply an “either…or” or “both…and” construction after the preposition:

Foods fortified with either vitamin B12 or a B12 supplement need to be consumed by those following a strict plant-based diet without any animal products. (one plural subject modified by one prepositional phrase with two objects; plural verb) 

Muscle gained with both regular weight training and a protein diet contributes to a leaner and stronger physique. (singular subject modified by one prepositional phrase with two objects; singular verb) 

The thought of either shopping or relaxation by the pool makes Juanetta happy. (singular subject modified by one prepositional phrase with two objects; singular verb)

If our goal is to have a compound subject (two separate ideas), a third solution for our last sentence above would be to reverse the position of the elements causing confusion about the subject(s) and the number of the verb:

Relaxation by the pool and the thought of shopping make Juanetta happy.
Relaxation by the pool or the thought of shopping makes Juanetta happy.

As mindful writers, we want to compose content that doesn’t make our readers work to understand it. Ensuring our sentence subjects are clear helps keep the wind in the sails of our stories.

 

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, how would you further clarify the subject(s) in each sentence? Also select the verb that agrees with your sentence subject.

1. A hot dog with chips and a beer [make/makes] baseball games more fun.

2. Studying with books or an online tutorial [help/helps] prepare you for the exam.

3. This evening, dreams of sugarplums or a candy rainbow [is/are] filling the children’s heads.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

The following are some suggested revisions. You may come up with others.

1. A hot dog with both chips and a beer makes baseball games more fun.
A beer and a hot dog with chips make baseball games more fun.

2. Studying with books or with an online tutorial helps prepare you for the exam.
Studying with either books or an online tutorial helps prepare you for the exam.
An online tutorial or studying with books helps prepare you for the exam.
An online tutorial and studying with books help prepare you for the exam.

3. This evening, dreams of sugarplums or of a candy rainbow are filling the children’s heads.
This evening, dreams of both sugarplums and a candy rainbow are filling the children’s heads.
This evening, a candy rainbow and dreams of sugarplums are filling the children’s heads.

Posted on Tuesday, July 23, 2019, at 11:00 pm

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3 Comments on Drawing the Subject Out of Hiding

3 responses to “Drawing the Subject Out of Hiding”

  1. Amy Abravanel says:

    Good morning! I love receiving the weekly emails, as I learned so much of the grammar I teach my students from your beloved Jane. It was also from her that I learned that in a sentence with a singular and a plural subject connected by either/or, place the plural subject last and follow it with a plural verb, so platter and plates have …
    Please don’t ever stop the newsletters!

  2. Cristina Nelson says:

    Good Day! This article helped me review with my nephew subjects and verbs in English. I admit that I can’t really remember how to use them correctly in a sentence. That is why I searched, so I could help my nephew on this subject. I hope there are more articles like this one in the future.

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