The Grammarphobia Blog

When a helping word makes you cry help!

Q: I transcribe sonogram reports for a doctor who routinely uses this passage: “should any nodule become larger or develop/develops suspicious characteristics.” I’m confused—“develop” or “develops”? I know “nodule” is singular and needs a singular verb, but does “any” change this?

A: The right choice is “develop,” but “any” has nothing to do with it. And it doesn’t matter whether the subject is singular or plural. Here’s the story.

The passage you cite includes two verbal phrases “should … become” and “should … develop.”

You may be confused because there’s only one “should” (the second is understood) and because a couple of words slipped in between “should” and the first verb.

Here’s the passage with several omitted but understood words in brackets: “should any nodule become larger or [should any nodule] develop suspicious characteristics.”

The “should” at the beginning of the original passage is a helping word, or auxiliary, that indicates the two verbal phrases are conditional. (A conditional verbal phrase describes an action that depends on another situation.)

Technically, the word “should” here is a modal auxiliary, a verb that’s used, among other things, to indicate the conditional mood.

So why doesn’t it matter whether the subject is singular or plural?

Because a modal auxiliary like “should” is accompanied by an infinitive (“become” and “develop” in this case). And the infinitive remains the same for singular and plural subjects.

Examples: “He should become” … “They should become” … “I should develop” … “We should develop.”

Although the doctor’s passage is standard English, it’s often seen in a version with “if” at the beginning: “If any nodule should become larger or develop suspicious characteristics.”

As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains, a version like the doctor’s is created by omitting “if” and reversing the positions of the subject and the auxiliary.

Many people don’t think of “become” and “develop” in the examples above as infinitives because they aren’t preceded by “to.” As you can see, that’s often not the case.

Even when the “to” is present, it’s not actually part of the infinitive. It’s a prepositional marker indicating that the infinitive is coming up.

In other words, you can’t “split” an infinitive, no matter what anyone tells you. We’ve written before on the blog about the “split infinitive” myth.

Check out our books about the English language