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Does it always agree with a singular verb?

For example, does one say (i) or rather (ii)?

  • (i) It is the birds he is chasing away.
  • (ii) It are the birds he is chasing away.
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    ‘The birds’ are not the actual subject anywhere. In the main clause, they are the subject predicative; in the subordinate clause, they are (anaphorically) the object. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 13 '13 at 19:17
  • Bram, don't worry, I see a downvote, not mine; so I infer the question is not a good fit even for English learners. – user2903 Oct 13 '13 at 20:49
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    I thought it was a reasonable question. Like many questions, the simple answer is readily available pretty much anywhere (it is, not *it are), but there are some nuances that are less obvious which may be harder to look up. And this question gives us an opportunity to talk about those nuances, which in my opinion adds value to the site. For this reason, I voted up rather than down. – snailplane Oct 13 '13 at 23:19
  • @snailboat On other stackexchange sites, posts often get downvoted for being too easy, off-topic, not complete or for bad formatting. I have to guess why it gets downvoted here. I hate it when people don't comment and explain why. Yes, it might be a basic question, but that's why it's English learners, right? – Bram Vanroy Oct 14 '13 at 7:01
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A verb and its subject generally agree in number:

It is the birds he is chasing away.
The Great Lakes are the largest surface freshwater system on the Earth. (example from epa.gov)

In some dialects and in limited situations, agreement can be notional instead. In that case, the way you're thinking about it (as either singular or plural) is more important than its grammatical form:

%The Clash are a well-known band. (example from Wikipedia)

But agreement with it is never notional. It is always singular, so the following sentence is unacceptable:

*It are a well-known band.

Some subjects are conjoined (consisting of at least two conjuncts, A and B), in which case the verb typically takes plural agreement, even if the individual conjuncts are singular:

He and I are a couple.
Both he and it are far too valuable to be anywhere but a secure installation. (example from COCA)

As you can see, it is sometimes followed by are in these cases because agreement is with the entire subject he and it, not just with it, and this subject is plural.

Other subjects are disjoined (consisting of at least two disjuncts, A or B), and in this case the verb generally agrees with each disjunct individually:

  ‹ꜱɪɴɢᴜʟᴀʀ› or ‹ꜱɪɴɢᴜʟᴀʀ› is

    or

  ‹ᴘʟᴜʀᴀʟ› or ‹ᴘʟᴜʀᴀʟ› are

But sometimes singular and plural noun phrases are coordinated, and we end up with a number conflict. This conflict has to be resolved somehow, and different speakers have different preferences for doing so. For example, some prefer agreement with the plural disjunct, while others prefer agreement with the closer disjunct:

  ‹ᴘʟᴜʀᴀʟ› or ‹ꜱɪɴɢᴜʟᴀʀ› is    ← agreement with the closer disjunct
  ‹ᴘʟᴜʀᴀʟ› or ‹ꜱɪɴɢᴜʟᴀʀ› are  ← agreement with the plural disjunct  

But if we put the plural disjunct second, then the plural disjunct is the closer disjunct:

  ‹ꜱɪɴɢᴜʟᴀʀ› or ‹ᴘʟᴜʀᴀʟ› are  ← agreement with the closer disjunct
  ‹ꜱɪɴɢᴜʟᴀʀ› or ‹ᴘʟᴜʀᴀʟ› are  ← agreement with the plural disjunct

So in these cases we can make both groups happy by putting the plural disjunct second. Many style guides recommend doing exactly this. However, some speakers would prefer to avoid this conflict altogether; these speakers would prefer rewriting the sentence so that they don't have to pick one or the other.


In this answer, I've used the following symbols:
  % marks a sentence that is considered standard English by some speakers but not others
  * marks a sentence that is considered nonstandard by all speakers

The matter of agreement with conjoined subjects is actually more complicated than this. See e.g. Heidi Lorimor's thesis, Conjunctions and Grammatical Agreement.

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  • Great answer. Will mark as correct tomorrow if no one has posted an alternative answer. +1 anyway. – Bram Vanroy Oct 14 '13 at 7:01
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One would say

(i) It is the birds he is chasing away.

It is never acceptable to say "It are [...]" in the English language.

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1

"it" is always singular. In the case of your example sentence, "the birds" can be considered as referring to the group, not the individuals.

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  • Sparr, and what does 'It is the birds he is chasing away' mean!? Shouldn't it be 'They are the birds he is chasing away'? – user2903 Oct 13 '13 at 19:20
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    @Whiskey- What's little Billy doing out there by the bird feeder with his BB gun? He's trying to chase away the cats so that the birds can come eat. Hmm, it is the birds he's chasing away... – Jim Oct 13 '13 at 19:22
  • @Jim, interesting! Is this vernacular or normal speech? Or, is the chasing the object of that 'it is'? – user2903 Oct 13 '13 at 19:28
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    @Whiskey- It's normal speech. The birds is being treated as a singular entity, i.e., a flock, or a covey, etc. – Jim Oct 13 '13 at 19:41
  • And if the birds could speak, they'd say "We are the birds he is chasing away, d a r n i t !" :) – Howard Pautz Oct 13 '13 at 22:46

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