How Does Concord Apply to English Grammar?

Do the Parts of Your Sentence Agree?

Boys agreement
"And so we are left with the basic proposition that grammatical concord is desirable in number and person, but that in many circumstances notional concord arises from the presence of collective nouns, some of the indefinite pronouns, and other causes of 'abnormality'" ( Unlocking the English Language by Robert Burchfield). Simon Watson / Getty Images

The word concord is derived from the Latin for agreement. When applied to English grammar, the term is defined as the grammatical agreement between two words in a sentence. Some linguists use the terms concord and agreement interchangeably, although traditionally, concord is used in reference to the proper relationship between adjectives and the nouns they modify, while agreement refers to the proper relationship between verbs and their subjects or objects.

Mixed concord, also known as discord, is the combination of a singular verb and a plural pronoun. This structure happens when there's a substantial distance between a noun and its modifier and shows up most frequently in informal or spoken language. Discord is motivated when the abstract preference for a phrase's meaning to be in agreement outweighs the desire for the formal subject noun phrase to agree.

Concord in English vs. Other Languages

Concord is relatively limited in modern English. Noun-pronoun concord calls for agreement between a pronoun and its antecedent in terms of number, person, and gender. Subject-verb concord, as it relates to numbers, is conventionally marked by inflections at the end of a word.

In Romance languages such as French and Spanish, modifiers must agree with the nouns they modify in number. In English, however, only "this" and "that" change to "these" and "those" to signify agreement. In English, nouns do not have an assigned gender. A book that belongs to a boy is "his book," while one belonging to a girl would be "her book." The gender modifier agrees with the person who owns the book, not the book itself.

In Romance languages, nouns are gender-specific. The French word for book, livre, is masculine and therefore, the pronoun that agrees with it—le—is also masculine. A feminine word, such as window (fenêtre), would take the feminine pronoun la to be in agreement. Plural nouns, on the other hand, become gender neutral and take the same pronoun of les.

Gender-Neutral Pronouns

Recently, with growing awareness with regard to LGBTQ equality, there has been a sociolinguistic shift to accommodate those seeking to identify with the use of gender-neutral pronouns. While "its" or "their" are becoming common substitutions for "his" and "her," speaking strictly in terms of grammar, they are not in agreement. As a result, a lexicon of new gender-neutral pronouns has been introduced, although it has yet to be universally adopted.

  • He/She: Zie, Sie, Ey, Ve, Tey, E
  • Him/Her: Zim, Sie, Em, Ver, Ter, Em
  • His/Her: Zir, Hir, Eir, Vis, Tem, Eir
  • His/Hers: Zis, Hirs, Eirs, Vers, Ters, Eirs
  • Himself/Herself: Zieself, Hirself, Eirself, Verself, Terself, Emself

The Basics of Subject-Verb Concord

In subject-verb concord, if the subject of the sentence is singular, the verb must also be singular. If the subject is plural, the verb must be plural as well.

  • The window is open.
  • The windows are open.

Of course, these are easy examples but where people tend to get confused is when a phrase is containing another noun is inserted between the subject and the modifying verb and that noun has a different numeric value (singular or plural) than the subject noun. In this example, the first sentence is incorrect:

  • The crates in the warehouse is ready to be loaded.
  • The crates in the warehouse are ready to be loaded.

While "warehouse" is singular, it is not the subject of the sentence. The second sentence is correct. The word "crates" is the subject of the sentence, so must take the plural form of the vowel (in this case, "are") to be in agreement.

When two singular subjects are linked in a sentence by "either/or" or "neither/nor," correct usage requires the singular verb.

  • Neither Mary or Walter is available at present.

What happens when one subject is singular and the other is plural? Agreement depends on the subject placement in the sentence:

  • Either the dog or the cats are in the basement.
  • Either the twins or Mandy is waiting for you now.

Two subjects connected by "and" take a plural verb.

  • Orville and Wilbur are over by the fence.
  • The rooster and the chickens are missing.

There are two exceptions to these rules. The first is when a compound subject is connected with "and" but through popular use is considered a singular subject. While "Bacon and eggs is my favorite breakfast" is not grammatically correct, "bacon and eggs" is considered a singular item on the average American breakfast menu. The second exception is when both subjects are the same entity: The author and illustrator of "Where the Wild Things Are" is Maurice Sendak.

Meanwhile, some plural subjects call for singular verbs:

  • Fifty dollars is too much to pay for that dress.
  • Twenty seconds is all you get before I scream.

The following all take singular verbs: each, everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, somebody, nobody, someone, none, and no-one.

  • Each candle is burning.
  • Everyone is having a good time.
  • Nobody is going to mind if you get to the party on time.
  • Someone is likely to know where the house is.
  • None of us is to blame.