'Is' vs. 'Are': What's the Difference Between the Two?

By Carly Forsaith, updated on December 16, 2022

'Is' vs. 'are' can be a tricky choice to make in your writing. It's not always obvious which one you should use. But don't worry, we'll clear the whole thing up right here in this article, so you feel confident using both from now on.

In short, 'is' is for singular contexts, and 'are' is for plural contexts, so you need to look at the pronouns and/or the noun of the sentence to figure out which one to use.

What is the Difference Between 'Is' vs. 'Are'?

The first thing to know is that 'is' and 'are' are two of the three present indefinite conjugations of the same verb - 'to be.' The third one is 'am.'

The verb 'be' means you exist. Like in the famous Shakespeare quote, "I think therefore I am," the "I am" part means that you are in existence, you are alive.

In this way, it's known as a linking verb. A linking verb is a verb that, rather than showing an action, describes. Let me show you some example sentences that use the verb 'to be' (again, in various tenses) as a linking verb.

I am happy today.

My niece is already thirteen!

Paul was at the meeting yesterday.

Here are some other common linking verbs:

  • Seem
  • Look
  • Smell
  • Feel

But that's not all. The verb 'to be' can also be a helping (or auxiliary verb). Helping verbs are there to assist another verb in the sentence.

Look at the following examples where you'll see the verb 'to be' performing a helping role while the main verb stands in the limelight. The helping verb 'to be' (in various tenses) is underlined, and the main verb is bold.

She is hoping it will all work out.

The stray dog was last spotted in the park.

We will be heading to the party soon.

The two other main helping verbs are:

'To be' is an irregular verb, which is what makes it tricky. But fear not, I'm about to reveal the grammatical rules around using 'is' vs. 'are,' and trust me, they're easier than you think.

The best way to know whether you should use 'is' or 'are' is to look at the noun in the sentence. Is it singular? Then use 'is.' Is it plural? Then use 'are.'

No noun in the sentence? Remember that pronouns can replace nouns, so if you don't see a noun in the sentence, look for the pronoun. Again, if the pronoun is singular, use 'is'; if it's plural, use 'are.'

There's one exception, and that's when the pronoun is 'I.' In that case, you should use 'am.'

'Is' vs. 'Are' - When to Use 'Is'

The main thing to remember is that 'is' is used for singular nouns. As for pronouns, 'is' is only used for the third-person singular personal pronouns in the present tense. All the other personal pronouns use 'are' except for the first person singular, which uses 'am.' For example:

She is looking forward to getting her teeth whitened.

David is the top salesman on his team.

The dog is sleeping cozily in its bed.

'Is' vs. 'Are' - When to Use 'Are'

Once you understand the rules for using 'is,' knowing when to use 'are' is pretty straightforward since you pretty much use it the rest of the time.

You can use 'are' when the noun is plural or the pronoun is any other than the one you use 'is' for (third-person singular - 'he’/’she’/’it’/’they'). For example:

We are very excited to see you both on Friday.

Few of my friends enjoy the same music as I do.

Are you sure you are comfortable?

Many of the guests are friends of the groom.

Greg and Susan are on their honeymoon.

The dogs are getting along just fine.

But there are a few other cases for you to be aware of.

Singular Indefinite Pronouns

You should treat singular indefinite pronouns such as 'everybody,' 'everyone,' 'each,' 'every,' and 'neither' as singular, even though you're referring to a group of people or items. So you'd say:

Everybody is on the dancefloor.

Neither option is appealing.

Each house on that street is worth millions of dollars.

Mass Nouns

Mass nouns (or uncountable) refer to things that cannot be counted. Here are some examples of uncountable nouns:

  • coffee
  • love
  • music
  • rice
  • money

Because mass nouns are singular nouns - even though they can describe a number of things, you should use 'is.' For example:

This coffee is delectable.

Rice is my favorite side dish.

I know money is scarce these days.

Abstract Nouns

Abstract nouns can refer to several things - from emotions, ideas, societal concepts, or even religious beliefs. Since they are abstract, it can be difficult to pinpoint whether they are singular or plural. But in all cases, use 'is.'

Her excitement is clouding her judgment.

I find creativity to be a great way to decompress.

Their friendship is inspiring.

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns help refer to groups of people. 'Class,' 'herd,' and 'team' are good examples of collective nouns. With these, you also use 'is,' even though, just like singular indefinite pronouns, they refer to more than one person or thing.

The whole family is coming together for Christmas.

We took a vote, and the group is leaning towards ice skating for our team-building exercise.

The audience is on fire tonight!

Concluding Thoughts on 'Is' vs. 'Are'

Do you feel more confident around your usage of 'is' vs. 'are' now? I certainly hope so! As I said, 'is' is primarily for singular nouns and pronouns, and 'are' is for plural ones. But don't hesitate to come back to this article to check if you have any doubts.

For more articles on confusing words, visit our blog. You'll learn a ton; scout's honor!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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