Is this subject singular or plural?

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Image by Stuart Miles at

Image by Stuart Miles at

One of the common questions I get is a version of “Is this subject singular or plural?” For example:

Is this sentence correct?
“A quarter of Egypt’s population use the internet.”

In this case, our minds tell us that a quarter of Egypt’s population is a lot of people, so the verb should agree with a plural subject. But this would be wrong.

According to the Blue Book of Grammar, for words that indicate portion such as percent and fraction, we should have the verb agree with the thing that they are a part of. That is, the word population is the key to understanding the agreement here. “Population” is a collective noun, indicating the total as a singularity. If we could say “Egypt’s population uses the internet,” then the statement “One-quarter of Egypt’s population…” would also use the verb that agrees with the singular. To change the sentence slightly: “One-quarter of the people in Egypt use the internet.” In this sentence, use must agree with people, instead of population.

Is this subject singular or plural?

Here’s another verb agreement conundrum:

I was trying to explain that free breadsticks and salad does/do not mean you….

What is the subject for does/do…does sounds right but isn’t the subject plural.

Free activities is/are a great way to attract new customers

In both of these sentences, we have a compound subject joined by and. The rule for such subjects is that they are plural and the verb must agree with a plural subject. This is called notational agreement. An example sentence could be “Salad and breadsticks are nice, but they do not constitute a balanced meal.” But in the example question, they are treated as a single concept. “Free salad and breadsticks…” now comes the tricky part. The correct verb depends on the predicate, not the subject (can anyone find me a citation to back me up?). I think it is another example of the Blue Book exception to rule 4, where what appears to be a plural subject is actually a compound noun. The evidence is that the adjective “free” applies to both nouns, so they are treated as a singular item.

  • Free salad and breadsticks does not mean this is a high-class restaurant.
  • Free salad and breadsticks do not make this meal a great deal.

In the first example sentence the two free items are taken together as a collective idea; therefore, the singular verb is appropriate.

In the second example sentence, the two items are normal nouns that are countable, so we use the plural verb.

The second sentence in the question is more clearly an exception to the rule. Here, free activities is considered a single concept, and thus should be followed by a single verb.

Notational vs. Grammatical Agreement

Most of the time we use grammatical agreement: plural subjects take plural verbs. But, as in the examples above, sometimes a plural subject is actual a singular concept. Notational agreement is when we consider a plural subject as a singular and follow it by a singular form of a verb.