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Writing Tip: November 8, 2005
Making Verbs Agree with Relative Pronouns

Several of our writing tips have opened with a brief quiz that we prefaced with the question "Which of the following sentences are problematic?"

On more than one occasion, subscribers have written to suggest that in our opening question, the plural verb "are" should be the singular verb "is." That is, these subscribers are convinced that the relative pronoun "which" is always singular.

It is in fact possible, however, for the relative pronouns "which," "who," and "that" to be either singular or plural. They take their number from their antecedent--the words to which they refer. That is, if the antecedent is plural, the pronoun is plural and therefore takes a plural verb. If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun is also singular and thus takes a singular verb.

It is possible, of course, to say "Which of the following sentences is problematic?" However, this construction implies that only *one* of the sentences is problematic. The full meaning of the sentence would, therefore, be "Which *one* of the following sentences is problematic?" And that idea was, of course, not what we intended since more than one of our test sentences contained an error.

Consider the following sentences:

  • Which of the steering committee members is going to draft the proposal?

  • Which of the steering committee members are going to draft the proposal?

    The first of these sentences implies that only *one* member of the steering committee will be drafting the proposal. The second sentence, on the other hand, suggests that two or more committee members will be working on the proposal draft together.

    Consider this example:

  • Emily picked all of the flowers *that were* growing in the back garden.

    In this sentence, the antecedent of "that" is "flowers." Since the noun "flowers is plural, the pronoun "that" is plural as well and therefore takes a plural verb.

    In a different sentence, the antecedent of "that" could be a singular noun. We could write, for example, "Emily picked the one flower *that was* growing in the back garden."

    Here are more examples using the relative pronouns "which," "who," and "that":

    This objective correlates with the central performance *goals* in our corporate renewal plan, *which are* targeted toward the realignment of our marketing strategies in Europe and Asia.

    This objective correlates with the central performance *goal* in our corporate renewal plan, *which is* targeted toward the realignment of our marketing strategies in Europe and Asia.

    All *programs that are* totally or partially supported by federal funds must be segregated in the Special Revenue Fund.

    Every *program that is* totally or partially supported by federal funds must be segregated in the Special Revenue Fund.

    The employee and appropriate management must sign the telecommuting agreement *form, which outlines* the expectations and responsibilities of both the telecommuter and the agency.

    Employees and the appropriate management personnel must sign telecommuting agreement *forms, which outline* the expectations and responsibilities of both the telecommuters and the agency.

    The five faculty *members who are* representing the college at the conference in Russia *have* been invited to a luncheon at the presidentís home.

    The faculty *member who is* representing the college at the conference in Russia *has* been invited to speak at the presidentís luncheon.

    Test yourself:

    1. Every member of the sales team who (is, are) planning to take a vacation this summer must submit his or her request in writing by May 10.

    2. All members of the sales team who (is, are) planning to take a vacation this summer must submit their requests in writing by May 10.

    3. Which of the following three numbers (is, are) the correct answer for the mathematical problem shown above?

    4. Which of the children who tried out this morning (has been, have been) selected for the three open positions on the team?

    Answers:

    1. is (The antecedent of "who" is "member," which is singular.)

    2. are (The antecedent of "who" is "members," which is plural.)

    3. is (Only one number could be the correct answer to a particular mathematical problem, so the relative pronoun "which" is, in this sentence, singular.)

    4. have been (Since three children were selected, the relative pronoun "which" is, in this sentence, plural.)

    ©2005 Get It Write

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