Do is vs. are grammar rules get you confused? This guide will help you sort them out.
Grammar rules can make it easier to use confusing words properly, and “is” and “are” sometimes fall into that category. These two forms of the verb “to be” have similar uses, yet there are occasions when they create confusion.
For most English writers and speakers, the words “is” and “are” sound right when used correctly. Because these verbs are so common, most people learn how to use them as children. However, learning basic grammar rules makes it easier to get it right every time, even when you cannot trust your ears to make these grammatical choices.
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Is vs Are: Two Forms of “To Be”
Both “is” and “are” are forms of “to be,” a common linking verb and being verb. In most English grammar situations, “is” is the form used with a singular subject, making it the singular verb, while “are” is the plural verb for plural subjects.
Here are two example sentences that use these verbs correctly with the proper subject-verb agreement:
- The dog is playing in the backyard. (singular)
- The dogs are playing in the backyard. (plural)
This seems simple, but like most things in the English language, there are exceptions. Also, you may come across situations where the items making up the subject are items you cannot count. To better understand this distinction, you need to take a closer look.
Proper Times to Use “Is”
“Is” is the verb of choice when you have singular nouns and pronouns as your subject. However, there are other more complex situations where you will choose “is” as well. Here are some of them.
Either/Or and Neither/Nor Sentences
The words “either” and “neither” function as both pronouns and adjectives, depending on how you use them in the sentence. If you use them in front of a noun without the “or” and “nor” added to the sentence, then the word is an adjective.
If the noun is singular, then you will use “is” in the sentence like this:
- Either hotel is a good choice for our vacation.
- Neither restaurant is available that night.
However, if you add “or” or “nor” to the sentence, then “either” or “neither” become pronouns, and they function as singular pronouns. You would still use “is,” as in:
- Either mom or dad is coming to your game.
- Neither March nor April is going to work for prom.
However, if the noun closest to the helping verb is plural, this rule sounds wrong, so English grammar allows you to switch to using “are,” like this:
Either my sister or my brothers are coming for Christmas.
A better way to fix this problem is to switch the order to keep the subject-verb agreement consistent, as in:
Either my brothers or my sister is coming for Christmas.
Singular Indefinite Pronouns
The singular indefinite pronouns are pronouns that end in -body or -one. These may feel plural, since “everyone” or “everybody” usually means more than one person, but grammatically they are singular. Thus, you will use “is,” like this:
Everyone you invited is able to come to the party.
Nouns You Cannot Count
Non-countable nouns are items that you cannot put a number on. For instance, the idea of sleep doesn’t really have a number. Neither do words like news or money. These words never use an indefinite article, a or an, and they are always singular.
Love is like a red, red rose.
The final time you use “is” is with collective nouns, which are also known as mass nouns. These nouns often represent ideas that are plural, like community or family. However, they almost always show up as singular subjects and use the word “is.”
The family that lives next door is coming over for dinner.
The exception to this rule is when discussing the group members, in which case you use “are.”
The parents of the family that lives next door are coming over for dinner.
Proper Time to Use “Are”
“Are” is the word used for plural nouns and pronouns. These feel obvious to most people who understand American English. Some tricky uses are these examples:
Plural Indefinite Pronouns
Words like “some,” “many,” “all,” and “few” are called plural indefinite pronouns. They describe an unknown number of items, but since the group is always more than one, they are plural pronouns. They use the word “are.”
Some dogs become aggressive when their owners are in danger.
Numbers and Pairs
If you use the phrase “a number of” before a noun, the subject is plural. You will use “are.” The same is true if you use “a pair of” and a noun.
A number of people are signed up for the ACT prep course.
The Second Person Pronoun “You”
The second person pronoun “you” can be singular or plural depending on who it refers to in the sentence. However, even if it refers to just one person, it takes the plural form of the verb.
You are my best friend.
Are vs. Is in Compound Subjects
Compound subjects are unique because you may use “is” or “are” depending on the way the sentence flows and what conjunction you use. If you have a compound subject joined by the word “and,” you always use “are.”
Jack and Jill are famous in the nursery rhyme.
However, if you have a compound subject joined by the word “or,” your verb must match the number of the very last item in the list. This type of subject may require “is” or “are” depending on how it is written.
- Strawberries or bananas are his favorite fruit.
- Strawberries or a banana is available for your after-school snack.
First Person Singular Pronoun Exception
Another exception to the is vs. are question is the first person pronoun “I.” This pronoun is singular, but it does not take the verb “is.” It has its own form of the verb “to be,” and that is “am.”
I am in traffic, so I will be late.
A Final Word on Is vs. Are Grammar Rules
Getting is and are right seems like it should be simple, but these present tense helping verbs sometimes trip people up. You will generally use “is” with singular subjects and “are” with plural subjects. This gets tricky with nouns and pronouns that are hard to count, such as indefinite pronouns and noncountable nouns.
With indefinite pronouns, use “is” if the pronoun ends in -one or -body, and “are” for others. For nouns you cannot count, usually use “is.” With the pronoun “you,” use the plural form of the verb. When using mass or collective nouns, you will usually use “is.” If you are referring to several people or group of people, you will use “are,” even though “number” feels like a singular idea.
By learning these rules, you will be able to consistently use “is” and “are” correctly.
FAQs About Is vs. Are Grammar Rules
When do you use is and are?
“Is” and “are” are the present tense helping verbs associated with the verb “to be.” You use “is” for most singular subjects and “are” with most plural subjects.
Which form of “to be” do you use with you?
If your subject is you, always use “are” regardless of whether you have a singular or plural antecedent.
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