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Is the 'verb and subject number agreement' a hard-and-fast rule? Or is there some leeway?

For example, in the following sentences do I need to change the verb from 'was' to 'were' to match the subject number.

Change:

All that mattered was his dream and the boy that would help realize it.

to:

All that mattered were his dream and the boy that would help realize it.


And, change:

The first thing that sprang to mind as I watched Arpan walk out of the arrivals gate and look around the airport was the mad fervor that afflicted me about a decade ago and the boundless darkness that lurked in the two mountains.

to:

The first things that sprang to mind as I watched Arpan walk out of the arrivals gate and look around the airport were the mad fervor that afflicted me about a decade ago and the boundless darkness that lurked in the two mountains.

or:

What first sprang to mind as I watched him walk out of the arrivals gate and look around the airport were the mad fervor that afflicted me about a decade ago and the boundless darkness that lurked in the two mountains.

In the first example, I find nothing wrong with changing 'was' to 'were' but in the second example, I'm not comfortable using 'were' for some reason.

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    If the rule comes from a grammar textbook, it's probably wrong anyway, so certainly there is a great deal of latitude. Or perhaps I should say there's a lot of variations. The key is to listen to the speech; writing is impossible to understand without hearing the sounds in one's mind. Jun 3 '13 at 15:40
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No, subject and verb must always agree. That said, there can be complexities and special cases.

In your first example, "was" is correct and "were" is wrong. I think you are getting confused by the word "all". In general, "all" is plural. "All the brothers were valiant." "All roads lead to Rome." Etc. It takes a plural verb.

But the phrase "all I need" is something of an idiom. It indicates the one thing or one set of things that you need, and so is treated as singular.

All I need is this chair.

There is only one thing that I need: this chair. It's singular.

If you're identifying more than one thing, either a singular or a plural is acceptable:

All I need is a chair and a lamp.

All I need is two chairs.

All I need are a chair and a lamp.

All I need are two chairs.

All good.

In the second example, you are identifying two things: the fervor AND the darkness, so it is plural and the correct verb is "were".

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  • Thank you for the answer. But wrt the first example, aren't there two things that matter? His dream and the boy? So shouldn't it be 'were'?
    – Soulz
    Jun 3 '13 at 18:15
  • I know they're something of a special case, but 330,000 written instances of "there's a few" don't seem to have subject/verb agreement. Jun 3 '13 at 19:55
  • @Soulz: As Jay's examples show, when "all you need", or "all that matters" consists of two (or maybe even more) closely-related things, it's quite normal to treat them as singular. For example, All you need is a pencil and paper. Jun 3 '13 at 20:57

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