Hello, this is Simon.
I got asked an interesting question the other day, and it was one that I couldn’t immediately answer. It was related verb agreement and one of the more annoying parts of the English language “singular/plural”.
The student herself is actually an English teacher who helps higher elementary and junior high school students to pass their school tests and Eiken tests. She often asks me grammar related questions, and this time it was related to a sentence in the junior high school English text book.
“Everyone can enjoy sports, and playing and watching them makes people happy and positive.”
Her question was, “Since ‘playing’ and ‘watching’ are two things, shouldn’t the plural form of the verb ‘makes’ (make) be used?”
I couldn’t argue with her logic, but then the sentence did pass the smell test (it sounded natural to me).
I knew the rule for nouns was that a plural verb should be used after a plural subject or singular subjects connected with “and”, for example:
“Dogs make great pets.”
“A dog and a cat make great pets.”
And, that a singular verb should be used after a singular subject or singular subjects connected with “or”, for example:
“A dog makes a great pet.”
“A dog or a cat makes a great pet.”
But, what was the rule when the subject is a gerund or gerunds?
I did some checking on that grammar point, and after looking at several sites, found that her logic was correct. Two activities done together (e.g. playing and watching sports) should have a plural verb (make), and two separate activities (e.g. playing or watching sports) should have a singular subject (make). That was the general consensus on the internet.
However, did that mean that the text book was incorrect? It seemed highly unlikely. And if so, why did that sentence sound perfectly natural to me?
The word “natural” is a feeling thing so can’t be quantified. But, I think generally speaking if something sounds natural it means that we have seen or heard it a lot. If that wording is natural, then there should be plenty of examples of it on the internet.
I did a check on the most common phrase I could think of: “eating and drinking is/are not allowed”.
“eating and drinking isn’t allowed” – 982 results
“eating and drinking aren’t allowed” – 935 results
As you can see both singular and plural form had roughly the same amount of usage. A few people online were actually asking whether it should be followed by “is” or “are”. I dug a little deeper and I found a good answer. “Eating” and “drinking” are two separate activities, so should be followed by a plural noun, however some people also consider “eating and drinking” to be a kind of set, or single subject, so a singular verb is also acceptable.
I think the same could be said for “playing and watching sports”. They are two separate activities, but could be thought of as a kind of set of things that people do related to sports, so both plural and singular verbs can be used after this phrase.
The Google search results below seem to reinforce this:
“playing and watching sports are” – 2,270 results
“playing and watching sports is” – 9,130 results
The verbs “are” and “is” were used because when I did a search using “make” and “makes” the results were too few to be conclusive:
“playing and watching sports make” – 2 results
“playing and watching sports makes” – 10 results
In conclusion, it seems that the sentence in the junior high textbook (and my feeling) was correct. I felt that this wording sounded natural, which is something a native speaker can do. However, in the case of an English learner, you could instead try doing a Google search on a phrase to see if it is commonly used (be sure to put it in quotation marks). If the results are inconclusive, try making it simpler or changing it slightly.
I hope this was useful.
See you next month!
Hello! My name is Simon.
I am from New Zealand, and have been living and teaching English in Japan since 1999.
My hobbies include movies, playing the guitar, gardening and hiking.