When I first learn about the present form of 'be', I was told that:

Use 'are' with plural noun.

And when I first studies articles, I was told that:

Use 'a' / 'an' with single noun.

So I guess this sentence is grammatically wrong:

'Secret ballots are an important sign of a fair election.'

Any explanation?

  • The subject, which are has to agree with, is secret ballots. The fact that secret ballots and an important sign have different pluralities isn't ungrammatical. – Peter Shor Mar 26 '15 at 11:52
  • You have more than one noun in your sentence. For example, you could say a secret ballot is an important sign of a fair election. If you change secret ballot to plural indefinite, then it becomes secret ballots are an important sign of a fair election. Another possibility is secret ballots are an important sign of fair elections – Brandin Mar 26 '15 at 11:52
  • "The secret ballot ..." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secret_ballot – Jamie Mar 26 '15 at 11:54
  • 1
    @WindowsDude7 No it is not an exception. There are three noun phrases in the sentence. 1-secret ballots 2-an important sign, 3-a fair election. Each noun phrase gets its own article such as a/an/the/this/that/these/those/null. For example the first phrase is "secret ballots" which has a null article before it, because it is discussion secret ballots in general. If we were talking about some particular secret ballots which are sitting on a table or something, we might say the secret ballots or those secret ballots – Brandin Mar 26 '15 at 11:57
  • 1
    @Jamie secret ballots is a single noun phrase, just like tall students or expensive computers or languages spoken in Southeast Asia. Those examples have a "null" article (no article) before them because we mean a group or class in general. You add an article before the noun phrase to clarify this. For example, you could say the tall students or those expensive computers or a language spoken in Southeast Asia – Brandin Mar 26 '15 at 12:03

Yes, context dependent of course. The Oxford English Dictionary includes over 500 examples but one, is "Bananas are an important export crop ..." Or, "the chairmen are an honest bunch of people." Critical here appears to be the fact that the second noun is singular ("a bunch", "an export crop") whereas the first noun ("bananas", "chairmen") is plural. That makes intuitive sense in as much as the verb ("are") agrees in person and number with the subject of the sentence, whereas "an" fits the object, with the word following "an" obviously commencing with a vowel or semi-vowel

  • Great explanation ... although "an honest bunch of people" is usually plural. – Peter Shor Mar 26 '15 at 13:04
  • @PeterShor Not sure about "usually". For example I think in UK English choosing a plural for such a group noun is more common, while in US English we usually choose a singular. However IMO you pretty much have free reign here (singular/plural): that is an honest bunch of people; they are an honest bunch of people; an honest bunch of people is standing in the square; an honest bunch of people are standing in the square. None of these is wrong in my opinion. – Brandin Mar 26 '15 at 14:39
  • I'd agree ... none of them is wrong. – Peter Shor Mar 26 '15 at 14:41

Number agreement of verbs in English often hesitates between logical agreement and grammatical agreement. "Secret ballots is a sign" is logical agreement, since it's the use or practice of secret ballots that's referred to. "Secrets ballots are a sign" is grammatical agreement, since the subject of "are" is grammatically plural. I can't give you a general rule which will always work. In this particular case, both grammatical and logical agreement sound okay, to me. A similar example is "Robins is/are a sign of spring."

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.