Subject verb agreement
June 3, 2016 9:43 AM   Subscribe

OK, I can't believe I'm wasting a question on this, but can you help me with this subject verb agreement question?

I'm about to go to print on something and need a check: In the following sentence, would you use is or are?

Crucial to [group]'s community work [is]/ [are] our partnerships with local organizations and non-profits.

Our PR firm proofread everything and I've never caught any errors from them before - but they have IS and I think it should be ARE, but now I've been staring at it too long and neither looks good to me. Help?
posted by widdershins to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Flip it around.

Our partnerships with local organizations and non-profits is crucial to [group]'s community work.

That's not right.
posted by archimago at 9:45 AM on June 3, 2016 [8 favorites]


Turn the sentence around and it's easier to figure out: Our partnerships with local organizations and non-profits [are] crucial to [group]'s community work.

Your partnerships is the plural noun.
posted by Think_Long at 9:45 AM on June 3, 2016 [7 favorites]


Crucial is an adjective. Getting rid of the prepositional phrases (which only confuse things), and un-inverting the sentence to make it clear that crucial is NOT the subject, we have "Our partnerships [is/are] crucial." Clearly "are" is correct.
posted by ubiquity at 9:46 AM on June 3, 2016 [7 favorites]


Thank you - exactly what I thought but this had been through a lot of eagle-eyed reviews and I was starting to doubt myself! Thank you again ~
posted by widdershins at 9:50 AM on June 3, 2016


Is. But your main problem is the use of "our". You can't really get away with using "our" as a pronoun for a singular noun. And a named group is a singular thing, at least in standard US English. (The tendency to see companies, bands, groups, etc. as plural is a thing about British English I don't entirely grok, especially in complex sentences like this.)

"Crucial to UNICEF's community work is its partnerships with local organizations and nonprofits," works. When you throw "our" in there, it makes no sense.

You could make the whole thing comfortably plural and keep "our" by structuring it as follows:

"Partnerships with local organizations and nonprofits are crucial to our community work."
posted by Sara C. at 10:05 AM on June 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


Are is correct, for the reasons stated above.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:06 AM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


No. Definitely not "are". It's "is."

You've got a singular subject, unspoken ("what is crucial to UNICEF's community work") and a plural object/complement ("its partnerships").

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.): “When a subject and a complement of different number are separated by the verb to be, the verb should agree with the number of the subject.”

More here and here.
posted by WCityMike at 10:13 AM on June 3, 2016


It's only one group, so the subject is singular. Therefore use "IS".
posted by Coffeetyme at 10:31 AM on June 3, 2016


You've got a singular subject, unspoken

There's no singular subject there. "Our partnerships" is the subject of the copulative verb "to be." It's not an object. There is no noun complement, only an adjective. As people have said, simply reversing the sentence order makes the correct choice clear: "Our partnerships with local organizations are crucial to our work."
posted by praemunire at 10:34 AM on June 3, 2016 [10 favorites]


What? No. No! It was settled! Don't introduce discord to the smooth progression of our crucial partnerships!

Crucial is its partnership isn't wrong grammatically but factually and emotionally it is wrong. We have not just one partnership but several partnerships. Who has these partnerships? We do: our group. Our team. Our family. Us. We have them. That's why we're reading this PR in the first place, because we've bought in. We care because we own and we belong. That's why this piece of PR is going to work on us and that's why "our" trumps the impersonal "its."

Heavy is the head that wears the crown; heavy are the heads that wear the crowns. Crucial are our partnerships.

Crucial! Are! Our! Partnerships!

OUR! ARE!
posted by Don Pepino at 10:37 AM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


(The urge to use "is" here strikes me as a case of attraction. "x's work" placed right before "to be" makes the writer think that "work" is the subject of "to be" and thus "is" is the correct choice. But it's not. "Partnerships" is the subject, "crucial" is the complementary adjective, and "to x's work" is just an adverbial phrase modifying "crucial.")
posted by praemunire at 10:38 AM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


A group is a single thing.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 10:39 AM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's are. The reason the sentence is confusing is the use of passive voice, which makes it seem like the group (singular) is the subject, when it's not. The partnerships (plural) are the actual subject of the sentence.

Even if it wasn't a group, you would use are. "My partnerships are crucial."

Passive voice is one of my pet peeves. People use it in business writing because they think it sounds more formal, when it really just makes your writing more clunky and difficult to understand.

I recommend: [Group's] partnerships with local organizations and non-profits are crucial to its community work.
posted by thejanna at 10:40 AM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


A group is a single thing.

The group is not the subject of "to be."

Strip out the modifiers and the sentence becomes "Crucial are our partnerships." Now, as a modern person I have no problem with allowing the different phrasing (with slightly different connotations), "What is crucial is our partnerships," and then the rule from Fowler cited above would apply. (It's going to sound weird either way, so the choice is basically arbitrary.) But that's not what the sentence says, and there is no need to imply the "what is." The partnerships are crucial. N-V-ADJ. Perfectly legitimate.
posted by praemunire at 10:44 AM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


There's no passive voice in this sentence (nor in this sentence). What's causing the confusion is syntactic inversion: the subject "our partnerships" is following the verb instead of preceding it. It's still a plural subject, though, so "are" is correct.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 10:45 AM on June 3, 2016 [7 favorites]


Ah, hell, I'm wrong.

"The way to test whether a clause is functioning as the Subject is to try replacing it with a simpler grammatical element such as a pronoun or basic noun phrase and then checking the grammaticality of the clause."

Makes you sound like Yoda in this case ("crucial to its community work are they, mmm, yes"), but it's grammatically correct.
posted by WCityMike at 10:45 AM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


As can be seen by the reactions here, the sentence is confusing and unclear and will lead to people stopping, scratching their heads and wondering about it. That makes it a bad sentence, unfit for its purpose in a piece of PR communications. Recast and rewrite the entire sentence to eliminate any ambiguity.
posted by sardonyx at 10:49 AM on June 3, 2016 [8 favorites]


The sentence as originally written is also ambiguous because first it is unclear if the word "local" modifies both nouns, and second it is unclear if "partnerships with" relates to both local organizations and non-profits. It reads better the other way anyway, and the "our" should be dropped.

Partnerships with local organizations and non-profits are crucial to [group]'s community work.

Partnerships is a plural noun (replace with "they").
posted by tempestuoso at 10:49 AM on June 3, 2016


A group is a single thing, but owning members of the group perform their ownership individually in a beautiful, convivial kaleidoscope of degrees of possession. Our.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:53 AM on June 3, 2016


You can't really get away with using "our" as a pronoun for a singular noun.

Yes, you can. Our house is on the corner.
posted by Linnee at 10:57 AM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


Our isn't a stand-in for "house" in that sentence.
posted by Sara C. at 11:05 AM on June 3, 2016


Our house is on the corner.

In that case, the "our" is not a pronoun but an adjective.
posted by tempestuoso at 11:05 AM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


"Our house" is not equivalent.
"The team's jerseys are our strongest feature: nobody can kick or hit a ball, but our team's outfits are covered in bling and blind our opposition; that's why they are our most prized secret weapon." See, "the team" is singular but "our" is plural, which looks wrong but isn't because the speaker is talking for the whole team--I betcha there are examples of this in Light in August; isn't that the one where the narrator is the whole town? That will be my next move: try to find examples of this in Faulkner. Eating up the next three or four hours. Thereby successfully avoiding the WRITING THAT I HAVE TO DO TODAAAAY!
posted by Don Pepino at 11:07 AM on June 3, 2016


...and what's causing this particular confusion is another of the many lies your English teacher told you, which is that a pronoun is a word that stands for a noun. It doesn't -- it stands for a referent, something in the real world, just like a noun does. In this case, the referent is a group of people which, it happens, can be described both by the singular noun team and by the plural pronoun we.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 11:09 AM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


> As can be seen by the reactions here, the sentence is confusing and unclear and will lead to people stopping, scratching their heads and wondering about it. That makes it a bad sentence, unfit for its purpose in a piece of PR communications. Recast and rewrite the entire sentence to eliminate any ambiguity.

This is not true. It's a perfectly good sentence; it is being misread by sloppy readers. Not every sentence has to be "See Dick run."
posted by languagehat at 11:12 AM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


Hey, just recast the sentence for clarity and simplicity.
posted by Skipjack at 11:16 AM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


This isn't a novel or short story, this is presumably an organizational mission statement or strategy document meant to convey, in no uncertain terms, a proper course of action.

The possibility for confusion should, therefore, be minimized and the sentence should be optimized for clarity first and for creativity a distant second.
posted by tempestuoso at 11:25 AM on June 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


Well, after seeing this lively debate, I don't feel so bad for having to ask the question. It's gone to print with ARE.

Thanks everyone!
posted by widdershins at 11:27 AM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


I agree that not every sentence needs to be "See Dick run." If you're writing a novel or composing poetry or producing prose that will be read by a specific audience you've got a lot more leeway and flexibility than if you're creating PR and marketing materials for a broad, general audience.

In this case the widdershins is trying to create something that conveys a message, puts the organization in a good light, doesn't create controversy and communicates effectively. Widdershins isn't trying to distract the audience with grammatical questions or make those who believe themselves to be language and grammar experts to question the professionalism of the organization due to the fact it can't even produce copy that is grammatically correct. ("Those idiots can't even write but they want money from me? Hell no!") Whether the sentence is grammatically correct or not is totally immaterial. It's a sentence that has the potential to make people believe that it's wrong or to cause people to question it.

That's why I say it's a sentence that is unfit for purpose. It's a sentence that has the potential to call attention to itself and its structure. It's an attention-grabbing sentence, but it's attention grabbing for the wrong reasons. It's not a strong declaration of accomplish for the agency or an announcement of success. ("With just $10 in donations, we were able to help 10,000 families," or "Thanks to our partnerships we've been able to broker peace in the Middle East.") Instead it draws attention away from the message and into the mechanics of the delivery, which is the opposite of what good PR should do.
posted by sardonyx at 11:30 AM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


And of course I missed my edit window. It wouldn't be a grammar post without a typo in it, now would it? (And yes, I should star wearing the correct glasses while composing MeFi posts.)
posted by sardonyx at 11:37 AM on June 3, 2016


It scans just fine, OP, ignore the over-thinkers.
posted by Think_Long at 11:42 AM on June 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


Our isn't a stand-in for "house" in that sentence.

Our house is on the corner.
In that case, the "our" is not a pronoun but an adjective.


"Our" is a possessive adjective pronoun.

...our partnerships with local organizations and non-profits.
In OP's sentence, our modifies partnerships, which is a plural noun requiring the verb are.
posted by Linnee at 2:14 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


When you get this fraught regarding one particular word choice, the best course is to completely rephrase the statement. Because no matter what choice you make, some readers will be confused.

Avoiding problematic constructions is more important than being technically correct about them.
posted by yesster at 3:24 PM on June 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


The reason the sentence is confusing is the use of passive voice

No. This is not an example of passive voice.
posted by mister pointy at 9:43 AM on June 4, 2016


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