Q: I’ve been having a debate with my wife about the phrase “as follows.” I think the verb should be singular (follows) or plural (follow), depending on the context. My wife thinks it’s always singular. Can you please provide some insight?
A: Your wife is right. The construction is always singular: “My position is as follows” … “The three points are as follows” … “Her favorite books were as follows,” and so on.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes the phrase “as follows” as “a prefatory formula used to introduce a statement, enumeration, or the like.”
In this formula, the OED says, the verb is impersonal and should always be used in the singular—“follows.” Use of the plural verb “follow,” Oxford adds, is “incorrect.”
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage concurs, saying “All experts agree” that “as follows regularly has the singular form of the verb—follows—even if preceded by a plural.”
The OED’s earliest examples of the phrase in writing are in the singular: “als her fast folowys” (as here directly follows), from 1426, and “He openly sayde as foloweth” (He openly said as follows), from 1548.
A more telling example, from George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), discusses the correct use of the phrase:
“Analogy as well as usage favour this mode of expression. ‘The conditions of the agreement were as follows’; and not as follow. A few late writers have inconsiderately adopted this last form through a mistake of the construction.”
An inquiring mind might well ask why this is true. Here’s an answer from Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), edited by R. W. Burchfield:
“The phrase as follows is naturally always used cataphorically, i.e. with forward reference, and is not replaced by as follow even when the subject of the sentence is plural: His preferences are as follows … ; his view is as follows.”
“The reason for its fixed form,” the usage guide adds, ”is that it was originally an impersonal construction = ‘as it follows.’ ”
In case you’re still not convinced, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) has this to say:
“As follows is always the correct form, even for an enumeration of many things. The expression is elliptical for as it follows—not as they follow.”
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