Sentence Structure: Compound Subjects

“My friend and I are going to the movies together.” This example uses “and” to create a sentence with more than one subject, allowing the author to describe actions or identities of more than one noun at a time. This article will explain the use of compound subjects, complementing the article on compound predicates.

Plural or Singular?

Both “my friend” and “I” are singular nouns, but using the conjunction “and” to create a compound subject changes the number of the sentence, making it plural.

I am going to the movies.

This is a simple singular subject, and it takes a singular verb, as you would expect.

We are going to the movies.

Likewise, this is a simple plural subject with its matching plural verb. As in the introduction, you can combine single (or plural) subjects with “and” to create a plural compound subject that takes a plural verb.

My friend and I are going to the movies.

The Conceptual Singular

However, there are also cases when a compound subject takes a singular verb. Consider these examples:

Peanut butter and jelly is my favorite kind.
Spaghetti and meatballs is so delicious.

Uh-oh, compound subjects but singular verbs. Are these sentences wrong? Most native speakers will tell you that saying “Spaghetti and meatballs are delicious” would sound odd. So, what makes the difference?

In both of these cases, the multiple subjects make up one conceptual whole. You know peanut butter and jelly is supposed to describe just one sandwich, while spaghetti and meatballs describes just one dish. As a result, they are treated like a singular idea and given a singular verb.

Note that exactly which combinations of subjects should be treated as a conceptual singular is often a point of disagreement among writers. As a rule, I would recommend that you only treat a compound subject as a singular if you have heard it done commonly before. Even using the Ngram Viewer to check the frequency of the appearance of a given phrase with its singular/plural verb often isn’t much help, which just goes to show how much writers (even of the published variety) disagree on this topic.

Compound Subjects with “Or”

There are also special rules for handling compound subjects that use “or” instead of “and”. In this case, if both nouns are singular, use a singular verb as well.

A cat or a dog makes a good pet.

Predictably, if both nouns are plural, use a plural verb.

Cats or dogs make good pets.

However, if the sentence uses “or” to join a mix of singular and plural nouns, then the verb number should match whichever noun is closest.

Cookies or cake is a good choice.
Cake or cookies are a good choice.

Notice how the number of the verb changes depending on which noun is closer. This is another grammatical case that sounds quite ambiguous to the ear, so the best option is to remember just to match the verb to the nearest noun.

The same rule applies for the use of “nor”.

Can’t remember what to use?

Then you can always just re-phrase the sentence to avoid the dilemma entirely. This is true of many English situations: if you can’t figure out how to write a specific grammar form correctly, just re-arrange the sentence so it becomes unnecessary. For the cake or cookies example, you could modify the structure like this:

A good choice would be cake or cookies.
A good choice would be cookies or cake.

This way, it doesn’t matter which way you write the nouns because the subject has become “choice” and the number doesn’t affect the verb anyway. Cake and cookies have become the subject complement of the sentence.

Practice Time!

Choose the singular or plural form of each verb below to complete the sentences. Check your answers at the end (the correct choice is in bold)!

  1. Johnny Tremain (is/are) a revolutionary story.
  2. The ivy league universities (is/are) very competitive.
  3. Friends and family (is/are) the most influential people in your life.
  4. Rock, paper, scissors (exists/exist) in different forms in many cultures.
  5. Tolkien and Lewis (was/were) good friends in real life.
  6. Jogging or running (helps/help) improve cardio health.
  7. My friends Ted, Barney, and Marshall (meets/meet) almost every day.
  8. Red, yellow, or orange (gives/give) a summery feel.
  9. Pork chops and applesauce (makes/make) a good dinner.
  10. Mountains or the beach (serves/serve) as a good vacation destination!

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  1. Johnny Tremain (is/are) a revolutionary story.
  2. The ivy league universities (is/are) very competitive.
  3. Friends and family (is/are) the most influential people in your life.
  4. Rock, paper, scissors (exists/exist) in different forms in many cultures.
  5. Tolkien and Lewis (was/were) good friends in real life.
  6. Jogging or running (helps/help) improve cardio health.
  7. My friends Ted, Barney, and Marshall (meets/meet) almost every day.
  8. Red, yellow, or orange (gives/give) a summery feel.
  9. Pork chops and applesauce (makes/make) a good dinner.
  10. Mountains or the beach (serves/serve) as a good vacation destination!

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