A while ago I was asked about exceptions to a simple grammar rule: “compound subjects joined by and should always be plural”. For example, Jack and Jill go up the hill. Or Eggs and butter are great together. But what about the saying Slow and steady wins the race.? As with a lot of ‘rules’ in English, it depends.

The issue is that a compound subject is singular if it refers to one idea/concept but plural when it refers to more than one object somehow working together. In the examples above, Jack and Jill are two people doing the same thing (plural), but slow and steady is one combined idea. Jack and Jill could go up the hill separately, but winning the race requires the combined idea of being both slow and steady – slow cannot be separated from steady for the statement to work. With slow and steady, the subject is not two separate ideas acting together, it is one idea created by combining those adjectives – slow and steady becoming a single concept of acting.

This is the theory behind it, but is there a simpler consideration? Jack and Jill is a compound of nouns, while slow and steady uses adjectives.

Most of the time (to my mind!), the rule that compound subjects with and will be plural when dealing with nouns, as these subjects usually concern multiple things acting on the same task. But when we form a single idea from many components, we use the singular. This is more the territory of abstract ideas, such as creating a subject from a combination of adjectives – but it’s sadly not as simple as what types of words we use. Compound subjects with multiple nouns can also be used in the singular if we’re referring to an overall idea instead of them acting separately.

The easiest way to do this is when it involves using an extra word such as a noun or a participle, in which case the singular refers to that grouping word, rather than the component parts. Consider:

  • The boys and girls are working together to get a game going. (describing separate nouns doing the same act)
  • Grouping the boys and girls is a good way to get a game going. (describing the concept of ‘grouping’, singular)
  • Tim and Jane are waiting outside. (describing separate nouns doing the same act)
  • The combined strength of Tim and Jane was needed to open the door. (describing the strength of two people combined, singular)

It is also possible to combine two nouns into one idea without additional words, though, and this is where the exception becomes trickier. This may not always be grammatically accurate, as we would be essentially implying additional words, but you might find both uses for the same compound subject, particularly in more informal use:

  • Tea and milk go well together. (describing two objects combining)
  • Tea and milk tastes great. (describing the combination as a single idea)

I hope this clears up this idea somewhat, though it is another area of English that requires a bit of practice and nuance!

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