19) Person and number in verbs

Person and number in verbs

Verbs can be inflected for person and number. Let’s start looking at person, first.

1) Person

In regards to person, verbs only change form when they are in the third person singular simple present tense. For example, take a look at these examples from the simple present tense:

First person singular and plural: ‘I/we drive home everyday.’

Second person singular and plural: ‘You drive home everyday.’

Third person singular: ‘He drives home everyday.’

Third person plural: ‘They drive home every day.’

Here we can see that it is only the third person singular in these simple present tense examples where ‘drive’ has an ‘s’ added on the end and becomes ‘drives’. This is the rule for all verbs, and is why it sounds wrong to say something like:

He drive home everyday. (incorrect)

2) Number

The main time we see number come into play is in the third person singular simple present tense, as we just saw in person. Let’s look at those examples from the simple present tense again

First person singular and plural: ‘I/we drive home everyday.’

Second person singular and plural: ‘You drive home everyday.’

Third person singular: ‘He drives home everyday.’

Third person plural: ‘They drive home every day.’

Note that it is only the third person singular that changes the verb from the base form ‘drive’ to ‘drives’. As soon as we move to third person plural – i.e., more than one person – the verb goes back to ‘drive’ as in:

They drive home every day.

However, there are a few times when it can be easy to get this wrong. Let’s look at a few of them:

2.1 Compound subjects and their singular and plural verbs

For example, when we have a third person compound subject which is plural, the verb should be plural. Briefly, a compound subject is when a verb has more than one subject that it is working on. This makes sense as the word ‘compound’ can be defined as ‘consisting of two or more parts that are also bases’. The use of the word ‘bases’ is instructive in this definition, as a compound subject will be made up of two or more nouns, which could be described as the bases of the subject. Let’s look at an example:

John and Jane love reading.

In this sentence ‘John and Jane’ is the compound subject – made up of the bases ‘John’ and ‘Jane’ – and ‘love’ is the verb. Note that the verb ‘love’ is a plural form. This is because John and Jane are being thought of as separate subjects in their love of reading. They might both love reading, but that love doesn’t necessarily happen in the same way. If it were singular it would be:

John loves reading, and Jane loves reading.

Despite this, we must be careful not to use a plural verb every time there is a compound subject. Sometimes we want to think of compound subjects as singular, which means they will need a singular verb. For example, think of the subject:

The laughing and dancing

We might want to think of ‘the laughing and dancing’ as a singular thing – something which is part of the atmosphere. This is signified by having one definite article (‘the’) which signifies a specific situation where this ‘laughing and dancing’ is happening, and, vitally, means ‘the laughing and dancing’ is considered one single thing. If we wanted to think of ‘the laughing’ and ‘the dancing’ as separate, we might use:

The laughing and the dancing.

So let’s see it with one ‘the’ as a singular compound subject:

The laughing and dancing slows to a halt.

Here the compound subject is ‘The laughing and dancing’ – made up of the bases ‘laughing’ and ‘dancing’ – and the verb is ‘slows’. The verb ‘slows’ is singular, even though there are two things being talked about. The reason for this is ‘laughing and dancing’ are grouped together into a single idea. If you substituted in a plural verb for the third person singular in the present tense it would be:

The laughing and dancing slow to a halt. (this is arguably incorrect)

This is quite subtle, and I suppose it could even be debatable about how bad that sounds. However, the following two examples:

The laughing slow to a halt. (incorrect)

and

The dancing slow to a halt. (incorrect)

are both more clearly wrong, but ‘the laughing and dancing slow to a halt’ doesn’t sound quite as off. Nevertheless, we are putting ‘laughing and dancing’ into one subject, and having them slow down at the same time, so it makes sense to give them a singular verb: ‘slows’. If we were to have two definite articles (‘the’) we would then create a plural compound subject where ‘the laughing’ and ‘the dancing’ are to be considered separate, and therefore would get a plural verb construction:

The laughing and the dancing slow to a halt. (correct)

Here we have the compound subject ‘The laughing and the dancing’ and the plural verb ‘slow’. Note the definite article ‘the’ in front of both ‘laughing’ and ‘dancing’ to somewhat separate them from each other. These subtleties are really interesting to think about. Do you think it is useful to have this difference? If so, why?

Let’s look at another example:

The thunder and lightening starts suddenly.

Here we have the compound subject ‘The thunder and lightening’ followed by the singular verb ‘starts’. This is considering the thunder and the lightening as one singular entity. If we add a second ‘the’ in we make it plural:

The thunder and the lightening start suddenly.

Here we have the compound subject ‘The thunder and the lightening’ followed by the corresponding singular verb ‘start’. This is considering the thunder and the lightening as more separate entities.

2.2 Subjects ending in plural form but with a single meaning

Plural forms of nouns have been looked at earlier. Briefly, the ending of nouns will be changed for plural such as ‘day/days’, ‘miss/misses’ and ‘potato/potatoes’. Usually, this will lead to a plural verb such as:

Days seem to fly by like minutes.

Here ‘days’ is the plural subject, and ‘seem’ the corresponding plural verb. However:

Mathematics seems impossible if you don’t know the basics.

has a different structure. Here the subject is ‘Mathematics’ which has an ‘s’ ending, but only a singular meaning. Therefore, the verb is singular: ‘seems’.

While we are moving around in this territory, sentences like:

21 seems the right age for retirement to me.

can be a little confusing. ’21’ is in the third person singular because it is talking about ’21’ which is a single number. Therefore, it has the singular verb ‘seems’. That one confused me for a second (for the 50th time today) because ’21’ is a number which is more than one, which might suggest it should have a plural verb: ‘seem’. We could make it plural by adding an ‘s’, if we imagine a game where rolling a ’21’ is difficult to get:

21s seem impossible to role.

Now we are talking about more than one (plural) of the single number ’21’ – which makes it a third person plural noun, and therefore ‘seem’ is used.

2.3 Collective nouns and singular verbs

We looked at collective nouns earlier. As a reminder, a collective noun is a word which describes a group of items, concepts, ideas, people or animals. For example, a ‘bird’ describes one of a particular animal, whereas a ‘flock’ describes a group of birds. Therefore, ‘flock’ is a collective noun.

We have to be careful about the verb we use with a collective noun because it can be a singular or plural, depending on the nature of the sentence. So, for example:

The flock is swooping towards the water.

treats ‘the flock’ as singular by using the singular verb ‘is’. This is because the flock is being talked about as though it is one singular group. However, take the sentence:

The flock are swooping towards the water.

We see the plural verb ‘are’ being used. This is confusing, as the sentence is describing the flock as doing something together as one. However, by using ‘are’ we are thinking of ‘the flock’ more as individuals within the singular entity. We could think of this ‘are’ as changing the meaning to:

The birds of the flock are swooping towards the water.

Compare that with the first example:

The flock is swooping towards the water.

The birds of the flock are swooping towards the water.

Now it is a bit more clear that the second example is thinking of the birds as more separate than the first.

Consistency of verb number with pronouns in a sentence is also important. So, for example:

The flock is swooping in their beautiful formation. (incorrect)

would be wrong because ‘is’ is a singular verb while the pronoun ‘their’ is a plural one. The correct way to do it would be either:

The flock is swooping in its beautiful formation. (correct) (singular verb ‘is’ and singular pronoun ‘its’)

or

The flock are swooping in their beautiful formation. (correct) (plural verb ‘are’ and plural pronoun ‘their’)

Another time where things can get problematic is when we single out a person, place, animal, idea or thing from a group, using, for example, ‘one of those’ followed by ‘who/that/which’. Because of the signification of a singular with ‘one of’ we may naturally go to a singular verb, but this wouldn’t be right. For example:

John is one of those people who lives in the past. (incorrect)

would be wrong. It should be:

John is one of those people who live in the past.

The reason for this is we are talking about the plural noun ‘people’, and therefore the verb should be the plural ‘live’ and not the singular ‘lives’.

One way of double checking we have got the right verb is to try rearranging the sentence. So if you are wondering whether it is:

Mary is one of those people who runs from the past.

or

Mary is one of those people who run from the past.

You can rearrange to:

Of the people who run from the past, Mary is one.

where it is a bit clearer that using the plural ‘run’ is correct because we now have the plural ‘people’ away from ‘one’. Therefore, the correct answer is:

Mary is one of those people who run from the past. (correct)

3) Questions

1) How do verbs inflect for person?

2) How do verbs inflect for number?

OK, we are done with person and number; let’s move on to tense next.

NEXT: 20) Tense in verbs

Posted in English Grammar