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Writing Tip: March 26, 2002

Singular Indefinite Pronouns: Part 2

Can you spot subject-verb agreement errors in any of the following sentences?

1. Each of the seventeen department heads are required to submit a year-end budget report.

2. Neither of the two principals on the list of candidates have asked to be considered for the district superintendent's position.

3. Either of the desks are suitable for the president's new office.

4. Every one of the flowers in our garden were killed during the recent hard freeze.

In an earlier tip (12-11-01), we discussed the fact that we should use singular personal pronouns to refer to singular indefinite pronouns (e.g., anyone, everyone, someone).

We must remember also that singular indefinite pronouns always take singular verbs. Some of these pronouns are trickier than others. We know better than to say, for example, "Everyone are coming to my party" or "Somebody were in our house while we were away." Native speakers usually know to use singular verbs with these singular indefinite pronouns because the plural verbs simply sound wrong. We know to say "Everyone IS coming to my party" and "Somebody WAS in our house while we were away."

But we are often tempted to use plural verbs when the pronouns each, neither, and either are used as subjects despite the fact that they are singular. Each of the verbs in example sentences above should have been singular:

1. EACH of the seventeen department heads IS required to submit a year-end budget report.

2. NEITHER of the two principals on the list of candidates HAS asked to be considered for the district superintendent's position.

3. EITHER of the desks IS suitable for the president's new office.

4. Every ONE of the flowers in our garden WAS killed during the recent hard freeze.

In all four of these sentences, the prepositional phrase following the subject creates confusion because the object of the preposition is plural--as is often the case in a sentence containing each, neither, or either as the subject.

Sentence 2, for instance, does not say "two principals HAVE asked." The plural noun "principals" is the object of the preposition "of," and prepositional phrases never in any way affect the subject-verb relationship. What sentence 2 actually says is this: "Of the two principals on the list of candidates, neither one has asked to be considered. . . ."

In sentence 4, the subject "one," when modified by the adjective "every," might at first seem to be plural because the sentence conveys the message that ALL the flowers were killed. However, the subject of the verb is the singular pronoun "one," so that verb must be singular to agree with it.

TEST YOURSELF

Can you find any errors in subject-verb agreement in the following sentences?

1. Neither of the star players were on the roster for the championship game because both of them were injured.

2. Each of you have something unique to offer this organization.

3. Either of the magnet school programs are suitable for children gifted in mathematics.

4. Every one of the two hundred letters were signed personally by the executive director.

ANSWERS

1. NEITHER of the star players WAS on the roster for the championship game because both of them were injured.[Note that the second verb is plural (were) because the subject of that verb is the plural pronoun both.]

2. EACH of you HAS something unique to offer this organization.

3. EITHER of the magnet school programs IS suitable for children gifted in mathematics.

4. Every ONE of the two hundred letters WAS signed personally by the executive director.

Copyright 2002 Get It Write

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