Singular or plural?

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One of the most common grammar questions I get is: should the verb be singular or plural?

Today, the question went like this:

The line of girls (was/were) dancing.

What is confusing to many people is whether the verb (was/were) should agree with “girls” or “line.”

This is where an understanding of parts of the sentence is helpful. Every sentence has an action, that’s the verb. Every action requires an actor. That’s the subject. However, sometimes it’s hard to see the subject. For example if I look at you, point at the door, and say “Go!”, that’s a sentence, but the subject (you) i

s not explicitly stated, it is implied. Similarly, in a passive sentence, the subject may be hidden. In the famous line “Mistakes were made” the speaker does not provide the subject.

But in today’s question, we have a nice clear sentence. Who is doing the action? The line of girls. And yet, we’re stuck, as the questioner asks, with the choice between “line” and “girls” as the subject.

So, just as a mechanic takes things apart to see how they work, let’s take this phrase apart to see how it works.

Here are two options:

The line was dancing.

The girls were dancing.

Notice what happened? We lost “of”. This is the key to understanding. “Of” connects “girls” to “line”. In fact the words “of girls” tell us what kind of line it was.

The line of cars was idling.

The line of bus passengers was waiting.

The words “of girls” in our sentence is acting as an adjectival phrase. It describes the line.

So clearly, the answer, is “was.”