I guess this is a quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth:

Come what come may, Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

I'm confused about the subject-verb agreement in both sentences.

  1. AFAIK in the first sentence "what come may" (or "what may come") is the subject, and the first word "come" is the verb. But does the verb have to be singular if the subject is a clause?
  2. In the second sentence the subject is of the form "A and B", but why is the verb singular instead of plural here?

Sorry if the question sounds silly; I'm not a native speaker of English.

  • 1
    Ad 1. The first come is a subjunctive, and subjunctives have different endings (in this case, a subjunctive of the 3rd person singular has no -s). Apr 16, 2015 at 1:21
  • @Cerberus Could you explain more? What does the subjunctive convey in meaning?
    – Fan Zheng
    Apr 16, 2015 at 1:25
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    Hey, guys!!! This is POETRY. And it's SHAKESPEARE writing it. Shakespeare can dangle participles and split infinitives all he wants and no one is gong to complain.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 16, 2015 at 2:12
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    @HotLicks I disagree very much with that: the Internet is full of people complaining about shoddy Shakespeare grammar! Besides, there’s nothing in this particular quote that’s grammatically odd—apart from the word order in “what come may” (we’d just way “what may” nowadays), the quote given is perfectly normal, modern English grammar. Apr 16, 2015 at 9:45
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    @HotLicks Well, of course, the whole notion is poetic. Nobody would find themselves in casual conversation talking about how time runs through rough days (nobody I'd like to be having a conversation with, anyway). But considering two subjects as one (or having a singular subject consist of two units) with singular agreement is perfectly idiomatic in modern English. “Bacon and eggs is my favourite breakfast”, etc. Apr 16, 2015 at 11:27

3 Answers 3


Come what come may

This could be rephrased in more modern grammar as "Let what may come, come!"

Shakespeare's first "come" is a subjunctive form. The way it is used here is similar to how it is used in the phrase "be it enacted" (listed on Wikipedia as an example of an archaic English subjunctive), which has the meaning "Let it be enacted," or the phrase "God save the queen," which means "Let God save the queen" or "May God save the queen." The English subjunctive does not have distinct forms for different grammatical numbers or persons.

"What come may" is an archaic way of saying "what may come."

As Anonym mentions in a comment, some set phrases that use the subjunctive like this may still be used in modern English; we can say "Come what may" with the same meaning. Here, the initial "come" is subjunctive, and the auxiliary verb is used by itself, with the second "come" left implied.

Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

There are several reasons why Shakespeare may have used "runs" rather than "run" here. One is that, as other people have mentioned, we can occasionally use a singular verb after two singular nouns that are connected by a conjunction, but considered one unit (such as "bow and arrow"). To some extent, this is true today. However, you should also remember that Shakespeare used archaic grammar, and there are also many cases where he used a singular verb with subjects that would take plural agreement in today's English. For examples and discussion of this (and other grammatical oddities of the Bard), see this page on Shakespeare's Grammar, or this page by Alan Powers.

  • Isn't it just that the two conjugated subjects are considered serially? Time runs and the hour runs.
    – Toothrot
    Jun 11, 2019 at 9:25

In my view "come" in "Come what may" is an imperative.

As to "time and the hour runs" it may very well be that Shakespeare sometimes wrote just as people spoke. And when people without much education talk there are a lot of grammatical mistakes that one would correct when the text would be written.


One way to understand the noun / verb agreement in this sentence is to think about it as two individual nouns that are doing the same action, but doing it individually rather than together.

In other words:

Time runs and the hour runs through the roughest day.

There are a couple of things to understand about Come what come may.

First of all, as used above, Come what come may is not a separate sentence. Instead, it is a introductory phrase, which is a device used to ease into a sentence and provide some additional context about the sentence. In this sentence, the main idea the author is delivering is that in spite of how bad things are, time goes on. The Come what come may phrase (which can be though of as whatever else may happen) reinforces roughest day (which is the object of the sentence).

Next, the phrase come what come may is an archaic way of arranging words, especially the word pair come what. The most common phrase that contains come what is come what may, which is the modern idiom based on this Shakespeare quote. You could restate the phrase as "what comes may come", if that helps you understand why there are two come's in the introductory phrase.

  • Great! Could you then explain the second phrase more? i.e., what difference in meaning does it make to consider "time" and "the hour" separately rather than together?
    – Fan Zheng
    Apr 16, 2015 at 3:21
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    “Come what (come) may” cannot be restated as “what comes may come”. That is a completely different sentence that means a different thing. “Come what (come) may” can be restated as “Let what may (come) come” or, in a more easily understandable way, “That which may come, let it come”. Additionally, I’d say the point of keeping runs in the singular is precisely that the two subjects are thought of as a single unit doing the running together, rather than individually (then it would have been “Time and the hour run”). Apr 16, 2015 at 9:48
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    It's worth noting that the come what may formula used to be more prevalent. I remember reading a translation of The Count of Monte Cristo in which I encountered the phrase deny it who will. When I was first acquainting myself with the construction, I found it easiest to put the first verb at the end and append -ever to the wh- word; so, whoever will deny it, whatever may come.
    – Anonym
    Apr 21, 2015 at 17:42

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