As you work towards mastering the English language, you need to make sure that your subject and verb agree. This will eventually become automatic because the right choice will sound right, but, initially, you may be confused about whether to ask “Is the list” or “Are the list.”
The word list is singular and requires a singular verb, although there may be many items on a list. Thus, we would always say, “Is the list,” as in “Is the list on the table?” If we were speaking about more than one list, we would ask, “are the lists on the table?” using the plural verb.
This article will explore subject-verb agreement and the various rules that help us know how to make sure that we make the correct choice. We’ll also look a little deeper at the word “list” and how to use it.
Is “a List” Plural or Singular?
When we refer to “a list,” we are referring to the noun “list,” and it has the indefinite article “a” preceding it. Articles behave like adjectives, giving further information about the noun.
There are two types of articles in English:
- Definite article: the
- Indefinite article: a or an
When we use “the” before a noun, we are indicating a specific item. If we say “the list,” then we are referring to one specific list. When we use “a” or “an” before a noun, we are referring to it more generally and are talking about any one of something. “A list,” therefore, refers to one unspecified list.
Consider the difference between “a list” and “the list.” “A list” refers to an unspecified list, while “the list” refers to a specific list, as we show in the examples below.
- Please take the list when you go to the shops. (specific list)
- Please make a list before we go shopping. (unspecified list)
Broadly speaking, we use “a” before a noun that starts with a consonant and “an” when it starts with a vowel, although there are exceptions to this rule (source).
Because “list” starts with a consonant, we, therefore, refer to “a list.” We can only use “a” or “an” before singular nouns, while we can use “the” before singular or plural nouns.
What Is a List?
“List” can be a noun or a verb, but in the context of “a list,” where we precede it with a qualifier, it can only be a noun. Thus, in this context, it can have one of two definitions.
The most common definition is a record of short pieces of information that someone has usually either written or printed, with each item generally shown on a new line (source). We might refer to a list of attendees, a shopping list, or a to-do list in this context.
Consider the table below for some examples of how these types of lists may look.
|Party RSVPs||Shopping||To Do|
|Book train tickets|
Buy birthday gift
As you can see, there might be many items on the list, but there is only one list, so it is singular.
The second definition of the noun “list” is much less common. This definition refers to a ship leaning to one side when its weight is unevenly distributed. In this context, we could say:
- That ship has a noticeable list to the left.
- I am concerned about the list of that ship.
In either case, whatever the definition, if we are speaking about “a list,” then it is singular.
Origin of “List”
The use of the word “list” to denote a catalog of items dates back to the 1600s. The word has its source in the Middle English and Old French word “liste,” which meant a strip or border.
By contrast, the definition of a ship leaning to one side is much more recent and only dates back to the 1880s. Its origin is unknown, but it could be a spelling variation of the Middle English “lysten,” which meant “leaning toward one’s desires” (source).
What Verb to Use With “List”?
When we make a sentence about “a list,” we need to know what verb tense to use. You may wonder, “Do you use plural after ‘a list’?” You may also be confused about whether to use “are” or “is” after “a list” and whether to use singular or plural before a list. Read on to understand why the choice is the singular verb “is.”
The golden rule is that subjects and verbs must agree with one another in number. That means that a singular noun must take a singular verb, and a plural noun must take a plural verb (source). The subject is usually a noun (person, place, or thing) that does something (the verb). To illustrate this, consider the examples below.
- The list is on the refrigerator. (singular)
- The lists are on the refrigerator. (plural)
The same rule would apply to any other singular noun, as we show below.
- The cat is on the roof. (singular)
- The cats are on the roof. (plural)
- The shoe is under my car. (singular)
- The shoes are under my car. (plural)
If you are wondering whether to use “has” or “have” after “a list,” remember that the same principle applies to all verbs that follow — “a list” is singular, so we follow it with a singular verb.
- The list has many items on it.
- The lists have many items on them.
If we turn the sentence around, beginning with “is,” we turn it into a question. However, the principle remains the same that subject and verb must agree.
- Is the list on the refrigerator? (singular)
- Are the lists on the refrigerator? (plural)
- Is the cat on the roof? (singular)
- Are the cats on the roof? (plural)
It gets more confusing when there are other words between the subject and the verb, which might tempt you to use a plural verb. Still, if you can identify the subject, you will undoubtedly know what verb form to use. Consider the sentences below.
- The list of catering supplies is/are in my purse.
- A list of camping requirements was/were emailed to all parents.
In these two examples, the list contains multiple items — shopping supplies and camping requirements.
Both of these are plural, and you may think you should follow them with a plural verb. But you must remember that there is still only one list, even though it has many items on it, and you must, therefore, follow it with a singular verb.
- The list of catering supplies is in my purse.
- A list of camping requirements was emailed to all parents.
The Verb “To Be”
Both “is” and “are” are forms of the verb “to be,” which is one of the most common verbs in English usage. Unfortunately, it’s also irregular and doesn’t follow standard rules of conjugation. Refer to the table below for a summary of its forms in the simple tenses.
|Present Tense||Future Tense||Past Tense|
|I will be|
You will be
He/she/it will be
We will be
They will be
“A list” is an “it” and, therefore, takes the forms is/will be/was, as we demonstrate below.
- The list is in my file. (present)
- The list will be in my file tomorrow. (future)
- The list was in my file yesterday. (past)
The same would be true of any other singular noun, as you can see below.
- The dog is on her bed. (present)
- The dog will be on her bed tomorrow. (future)
- The dog was on her bed yesterday. (past)
When we invert the order of the subject and the “to be” verb, we create simple yes/no questions (source):
- The list is on my desk.
- Is the list on my desk?
- She is very tired after practice.
- Is she very tired after practice?
- He is wearing a blue shirt.
- Is he wearing a blue shirt?
For more on this extensive topic, read “There Is People or There Are People,” which also delves into the use of the verb “to be” and whether to use “is” or “are” when speaking about people.
How to Use “List”
“List” is a fairly common word and one that we regularly use in English conversation. However, let’s consider some common expressions containing “list” that you may find confusing.
“Here Is the List” or “Here Are the List”?
“Here is” is a common idiomatic expression that we use to introduce a subject, action, or person (source). For example, we would regularly say things like “Here is your bag” or “Here is the book.” If we were giving you a list, we might say, “Here is the list.”
As “list” is singular, we would always use “here is” for a single list and “here are” for plural lists. Consider the examples below.
|One list||Many lists|
|Here is a list of items to buy for the weekend.|
Here is a list of ingredients for the cake.
Here is a list of students who are graduating tomorrow.
|Here are the lists of registered students.|
Here are the lists of required clothing for camp.
Here are the team lists for the baseball tournament.
Is It “in the List” or “on the List”?
This is an interesting question because we can use either in the right context. First, let’s think about how we use the prepositions “in” and “on.”
“In” implies that something is contained by something, so if you think about a list, it is possible to think about the items being “contained” in the list. “On” implies that something is on the surface of something else, and it is also possible to think about items written “on the surface” of your paper.
Especially when we’re talking about a physical piece of paper, we most often use “on the list,” as we show in the examples below.
- Jack’s name appeared first on the list.
- Are you on the list for Tuesday’s meeting?
- Don’t forget to put soap on the shopping list.
We could also say “in the list” in all the examples above, but “on the list” is a more common and popular choice. We would most likely use “in the list” if we talk about inclusion in something. Consider the examples below.
- Jack was included in the guest list.
- Soccer, hockey, and basketball are included in the list of most popular sports.
- Please submit details by Wednesday for inclusion in the list.
Again, we could substitute “on the list” for all of these, but when talking about “including,” we’d more likely say, “include in the list.”
List as a Verb
We mentioned above that the noun “list” has two definitions. But, without the preceding article, “list” can also be a verb. In this context, it can mean any of the following:
- To make a list of items
- To lean to one side (referring to a ship)
- To make a company’s shares available on a stock market
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Here are some sentences that illustrate the use of “list” as a verb.
- I have listed all the items you need for camp.
- That ship is listing dangerously to the right.
- He was proud to list his company shares on the Dow Jones.
Subject-verb agreement is one of the factors that can trip you up when learning to speak English. Still, if you understand the logic of why we use singular and plural verbs, then you should be able to avoid mistakes in most cases.
Singular nouns require singular verbs, while plural nouns take plural verbs. In the case of “list,” it’s clear that it’s a singular item — regardless of how many items it contains — so we use the singular verb “is.”