By Geraldine Woods

Just as you need to guard against fakes (Rolexes, designer handbags) when you’re on the city streets, you need to guard against fake subject–verb pairs.

Finding fake verbs

Verbs in English grammar can be a little sneaky sometimes. You may ask who? or what? in front of a verb and get no answer or at least no answer that makes sense. When this happens, you may gather that you haven’t really found a verb. You’ve probably stumbled upon a lookalike, or, a “fake verb.” Here’s an example:

Wiping his tears dramatically, Alex pleaded with the teacher to forgive his lack of homework.

Suppose you pop the verb question (What’s happening? What is?) and get wiping for an answer. A reasonable guess. But now pop the subject question: Who wiping? What wiping? The questions don’t sound right, and that’s your first hint that you haven’t found a real verb. But the question is not important. The answer, however, is! And there is no real answer in the sentence. You may try Alex, but when you put him with the “verb,” it doesn’t match: Alex wiping. (Alex is wiping would be okay, but that’s not what the sentence says.) So now you know for sure that your first “verb” isn’t really a verb. Put it aside and keep looking. What’s the real verb? Pleaded.

To sum up: Lots of words in the sentence express action or being, but only some of these words are verbs. At any rate, if you get no answer to your pop-the-subject question, just ignore the “verb” you think you found and look for the real verb.

Watching out for “here” and “there” and other fake subjects

Someone comes up to you and says, “Here is ten million dollars.” What’s the first question that comes into your mind? Good grammarian that you are, your question isn’t Where can I buy a good yacht? but rather What’s the subject of that sentence? Well, try to answer your question in the usual way, by popping the question.

Here is ten million dollars.

  1. Pop the question: What’s happening? What is? Answer: is.
  2. Pop the question: Who is? What is? Answer: ?

What did you say? Here is? Wrong. Here can’t be a subject. Neither can there. Both of these words are fake subjects. What’s the real answer to the question What is? Ten million dollars. Here and there are fill-ins, place markers; they aren’t what you’re talking about. Ten million dollars — that’s what you’re talking about!

Choosing the correct verb for “here” and “there” sentences

If you write here and there sentences, be sure to choose the correct verb. Because here and there are never subjects, you must always look after the verb for the real subject. When you match a subject to a verb, be sure to use the real subject, not here or there. Example:

Here are ten anteaters. NOT Here is ten anteaters. (anteaters = subject)

If you want to check your choice of verb, try reversing the sentence. In the sample sentence above, say ten anteaters is/are. Chances are your “ear” will tell you that you want ten anteaters are, not ten anteaters is.

Standardized tests often check whether you can detect the right verb for a “here” or “there” sentence. Test-taker beware!

Which sentence is correct?

A. There are 50 reasons for my complete lack of homework.

B. There’s 50 reasons for my complete lack of homework.

Answer: Sentence A is correct. In sentence B, there’s is short for there is, but reasons, the plural subject, takes a plural verb.