English as a Second Language/Plural or singular?


Dear Shannon,

I came across two sentences which surprised me:

(1) "The fighting around the airport continued for a week before the enemy were defeated." I know that "enemy" is not a collective noun, so why "were" is used here? I think it must be "was".

(2)"Politics or religion are always interesting topics of conversation." I think the use of "are" is wrong here, because while "politics" can take either a singular or a plural verb, "religion" is always singular. So, the verb in the sentence must agree with "religion", i.e. "is". After "or" The verb must agree with the noun following it. Right?

By the way, what is the difference between "subject" and "topic"?

A lot of thanks!
Yours sincerely,

There is not a big difference between subject and topic in most cases.

I do think #1 is just an error.  I can't imagine why that would be considered correct.  At least, it's not the way we would use it in everyday English.

For #2, the use of "are" is correct, but they have made an error...when you are using "or" in a compound subject, and you have one plural and one singular subject, the strict grammar rules indicate that the plural MUST go last.  Therefore it should read, "Religion or politics are always interesting topics..."

For details and other examples, see http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar/subjectVerbAgree.asp

English as a Second Language

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Shannon Cole


I can answer questions related to learning the English and Spanish language.


I have taught ESL and Spanish since 1998 at the university and middle school levels. I am a native of the U.S., and have taught in both the U.S. and Mexico.

I am owner and operator of www.coleinstitute.com, an online language school.

Georgia TESOL in Action (1999)

B.A. in Spanish; M.Ed. in Language Education

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I have clients worldwide, some who want their documents proofread, and others who take lessons with me through the Internet. Some work at high-profile companies and government organizations. Besides the U.S. and Mexico, my recent students come from South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey, Colombia, Russia, Italy, Paraguay, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia.

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