Subject-Verb Agreement

Learning Objective:

  • Use correct subject-verb agreement to create coherence in writing.

LESSON
Sentences contain subjectsIn grammar, a part of speech that refers to the “doer” in the sentence (who or what). A subject is usually a person, place or thing. and verbsA part of speech that refers to what is happening, the action, what the subject is doing, or how it is “being.” Examples include: sleep, to be, think., and these must agree with each other when using Standard EnglishThe established, widely recognized version of English that includes proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar and avoids regional expressions, jargon, slang, and obsolete and invented words.. What does it mean for them to agree? Subject-verb agreementA grammatical term that describes when a writer uses subjects and verbs that match each other in both number (singular or plural) and person (first, second, or third). Example: The girls have pretty dresses and bows that match. In this sentence the subject, girls, is plural, so the verb have, and the nouns dresses and bows must also be plural. happens when a writer uses subjects and verbs that match each other in both number (singularA grammatical term that indicates one person, place, or thing is being described. Example: The book is red. or pluralA grammatical term that indicates more than one person, place, or thing is being described. Plural nouns often end in an -s. Example: The books are red.) and personIn grammar, a category of word forms according to whether they are referring to the speaker (first person), the reader (second person) or someone else (third person). (firstA word form that refers to the writer. Example: I got a new pair of ice skates for my birthday., secondA word form that refers to the reader. Example: You got a new pair of ice skates for your birthday., or thirdA word form that refers to someone who is not the writer or the reader. Example: He got a new pair of ice skates for his birthday.). For example, when you use a singular subject in the first person (I ), you should use a singular verb in the first person (run to the park). In this lesson, you will learn how to use correct subject-verb agreement to create coherenceThe quality of a writing that is well-organized and where events make sense. Coherence occurs when the ideas in a passage or in an entire piece “stick together,” allowing the reader to make sense of the information. in your writing.

Subjects
It is important to think about subjects in terms of whether they are singular, plural, or compoundThe subject of a sentence when two or more persons or items are joined by a conjunction such as and, or, nor, and but. For example, in the sentence Mike and Tom like to play basketball, the combination of the two boys, Mike and Tom, is a compound subject..

When you have a singular subject, you should use a singular verb for the subject and the verb to agree. For example: The boy is on time. In this sentence, you see one boy (singular subject). To find the verb, ask what the boy did or how he was being; the answer is he "is" (singular "to be" verb). If you were to write, The boy are on time, you would have used a plural verb with a singular subject, which is incorrect.

If the subject is plural, you will need to use a plural verb for the subject and the verb to agree. For example, The boys are on time. In this sentence, you see more than one boy (plural subject). Here if you write, The boys is on time, you have combined a plural subject with a singular verb, which is incorrect.

When you use a compound subject, you must take special care to ensure that it agrees with the verb. A compound subject that is joined by and always uses a plural verb, even if the second person or item is singular. For example: The boys and Sally are always late.

When the persons or items in the compound subject are joined by or or nor, make the verb agree with whichever subject is closest to the verb. If it is singular, make it singular. If it is plural, make it plural.

For example: Eric or the twins are well behaved if they are not together. In this sentence, the subject that comes closer to the verb (the twins) is plural, so the verb should also be plural (are). Now consider this sentence: The twins or Eric is well behaved if they are not together. In this example, the subject that comes closer to the verb (Eric) is singular, so the verb should be singular for them to agree (is).

There are a number of nounsA part of speech that refers to a person, place, or thing. Examples include: swimmer, lake, sunscreen. that may sound plural but are always singular and require a singular noun. These words are called indefinite pronounsNouns that may sound plural but are always singular and require a singular verb. Examples: something, enough, nobody, everybody..

Indefinite Pronouns

another

anybody/anyone

anything

each

either

enough

everybody/everyone

everything

less

little

much

neither

nobody/ no one

nothing

one

other

somebody/someone

something

For example: Everybody is excited about the party. In this sentence, because everybody is an indefinite pronoun, it is singular, so the verb, is, must be singular, as well.

Subjects usually come before verbs; however, there are instances when the subject follows the verb. One example occurs in sentences that begin with "There is" or "There are." In this case, the subject comes after the verb. Once you identify the subject, make the verb agree with it.

For example: There is a lovely woman who lives in that house. The subject (woman) is singular and requires the singular verb (is). Now consider if the sentence were as follows: There are three lovely women who live on our block. The subject (women) is now plural and requires a plural verb (are).

Questions are another situation where the subject often follows the verb. You can make the question into a statement to help you identify the subject. For example: The question, Who is that girl that you like? can turn into the statement, That girl is who you like. The subject (girl) is singular and requires a singular verb (is).

When sentences become more sophisticated and include prepositional phrasesA group of words that starts with a preposition and ends with a noun. For example, in the prepositional phrase, At the desk, At is the preposition and the desk is the noun. and subordinating clausesA type of dependent clause that begins with a subordinating conjunction. Example: After the game. The subject: the game, is modified by the subordinating conjunction: After., it can be difficult to identify which noun in the sentence the verb should agree with since both phrasesA set of words that express an idea. A phrase may or may not form a complete sentence. and clausesA group of words in a sentence that contains a subject and a predicate. also contain nouns. For instance, in the sentence, One of the players was offered a full-ride scholarship, notice that there are two nouns preceding the verb: one and players. To determine which is the subject of the sentence, cross out the prepositional phrase: One of the players was offered a full-ride scholarship. Since the subject of the sentence does not appear in a prepositional phrase, the subject of the sentence is one, which is singular, not plural. So even though the noun closest to the verb may be plural, sometimes you need to use the singular form of the verb to match the subject.

Verbs
All verbs must change to agree with a singular or plural noun. Many verbs that agree with singular nouns end in –s, which is removed for the plural nouns:

She cooks / They cook
He drives / They drive

In particular, most "to be" verb forms must change to agree with a singular or plural noun.

Singular

Present Tense

Past Tense

I

am

was

He / She / It

is

was

You

are

were

 

 

 

Plural

Present Tense

Past Tense

We

are

were

They

are

were

Finally, it is important to know the tenseThe form of a verb that tells when an action occurs. Verb tenses include past, present, and future. Example: to live: past: lived; present: lives, future: will live. of your verb and whether it is taking place in the pastA verb tense that refers to situations that have already happened. Verbs that are written in past tense often end in –ed. Example: The children jumped into the pool., presentA verb tense that refers to situations that are happening right now. These may be verbs that end in an –s or an –ing. Example: The children are jumping into the pool., or futureA verb tense that refers to situations that will happen at a later time. These often use the helping verb will. Example: The children will jump into the pool. because the tense can also affect how the subjects and verbs agree with each other. In fact, some verbs written in the past tense do not change their form for either singular or plural nouns.

Present Tense

Past Tense

She runs / They run

She ran / They ran

He buys / They buy

He bought / They bought

Cat plays / Cats play

Cat played / Cats played

Dog barks / Dogs bark

Dog barked / Dogs barked

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