You can usually tell whether to use is or are by determining if the sentence sounds correct. But, there are times when the difference between is and are is not so easy to hear, and both words (or neither) seem right. Learn about those tricky times when it’s difficult to choose is or are – and how to find the right option.
Both is and are are forms of the linking verb to be. You can tell which form to use based on the noun performing the verb. Singular nouns use is, while plural nouns use are. When you use the correct form of a verb that matches your subject, that’s called subject-verb agreement.
It’s easier to tell whether you should use is or are in a simple sentence. For example:
- Mary is excited about her first day of school. (Mary is singular.)
- The dogs are playing in the backyard. (Dogs is plural.)
- Eric’s desk is too tall for him. (Desk is singular.)
- Mrs. Price’s students are noisy in the morning. (Students is plural.)
There are a few exceptions, such as when using the pronoun I (which uses the verb am). But, what happens if the subject can’t be counted? And, should you use is or are after a list? The answers are simpler than you might think.
Besides singular subjects, is would be the correct choice in several different contexts. In more complicated sentences, it’s harder to tell the difference. Here are some instances in which you should use is instead of are.
Pronouns that end in -body or -one are known as singular indefinite pronouns. Even though everyone may seem plural, you’d choose is when using it in a sentence. Here are some examples of singular indefinite pronouns.
- Is anybody ready to leave?
- Everyone is having a great time at the party.
- No one is ready to admit who stole the money.
- Somebody is playing their music without headphones on.
Either and neither are pronouns and adjectives, depending on their use. When you place either or neither in front of a singular noun, it takes the form of an adjective.
- Either car is a good choice.
- Either freeway is better than taking city streets.
- Neither of my brothers is helping me clear the table.
- Neither movie is my favorite.
In the case of either/or and neither/nor subjects, they are singular pronouns. For example:
- Either Manny or Fred is driving me to the game.
- Either the black cat or the orange cat is scratching the sofa.
- Neither Mom nor Dad is able to attend the conference.
- Neither Saturday nor Sunday is a good day to meet.
There is one exception to this rule. Even though these subjects are technically singular, they sound incorrect when the noun closest to the helping verb is plural. Check out this example:
Either my mother or my sisters is coming to my art show.
Because sisters is plural, is sounds odd next to it. You have two choices to correct this type of sentence:
- Switch the order: “Either my sisters or my mother is coming to my art show.”
- Change the helping verb: “Either my mother or my sisters are coming to my art show.”
These choices are both correct, so it comes down to your own preference. When in doubt, rewriting your sentence for clarity is the best idea.
Unlike countable nouns, non-countable nouns have no specified numbers and do not use indefinite articles a or an. These are words like money or news. Another type of non-countable noun is the abstract noun, which is also always singular. Here are some sentences that include non-countable nouns.
- Independence is a core value of any democracy.
- Milk is leaking from the carton in the refrigerator.
- Sleep is very important for both your physical and mental health.
- Sunshine is shining through the stained glass window.
Words like family or community can be confusing because they represent more than one person, making them seem plural. However, collective nouns almost always use is in a sentence. The exception is when you discuss the members of that group, making the noun plural. For example:
- The team is determined to make the playoffs this year. (Team is singular.)
- The members of the team are working hard on the field. (Members is plural.)
- Is your class learning about invertebrates? (Class is singular.)
- The students in my class are excited to dissect an earthworm. (Students is plural.)
Some tricky nouns use are even though they don’t seem plural. So, how can you tell the difference? Here are some examples of nouns that use are.
Some, many, all, and few are examples of plural indefinite pronouns. They describe an unknown number of nouns, which is why you should use are when including them in a sentence. These are some ways to use plural indefinite pronouns in your writing.
- Some animals are not meant to be domesticated.
- A few of us are going to the wedding reception this weekend.
- Many countries are considering pulling out of the peace agreement.
- All of the houses on the block are in danger of flooding.
When a sentence has two subjects that are connected by and, it has a compound subject. Compound subjects include lists of singular items such as names or ingredients. Some examples of compound subjects include:
- Lisa and Jill are going to the concert tonight.
- Brainstorming and proofreading are two important parts of the writing process.
- Rain and hail are in the weather forecast for next week.
- John, Ignacio, and Scott are on the ballot for the school election.
Using “a number of” or “a pair of” before a noun makes subject-verb agreement seem complicated. However, even if the noun is a collective noun, the traditional approach is to use are. For instance:
- A number of people are saying that Rodney cheated on his test.
- A pair of birds are known to mate for life.
- A number of polls are predicting that Greg Simpson will win the election.
- The pair are inseparable since they got engaged last year.
Because the phrase refers to the individuals in the group, it is considered plural. An exception to this rule would be for terms like “a pair of pants” or “a pair of scissors.” If the item is considered a singular object, it would use is.