13.3: Subject-Verb Agreement
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Subject-verb agreement errors are common, and correcting them will do a lot to improve the writer's professional or academic credibility and make a good impression on readers.
To correct such an error, we first need to identify the subject and verb. Every complete sentence, and indeed every complete thought, has a subject and a verb at its heart.
The subject, or what the sentence is about, usually appears at the beginning of a sentence as a noun or a pronoun. A noun is a word that identifies a person, place, thing, or idea. A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun. Common pronouns are I, he, she, it, you, they, and we. In the sentences below, the subjects are in bold.
|Sample sentence with subjects in bold||Explanation|
|Malik is the project manager for this project. He will give us our assignments.||In these sentences, the subject is a person: Malik. The pronoun He replaces and refers back to Malik.|
|The computer lab is where we will work. It will be open twenty-four hours a day.||
In the first sentence, the subject is a place: computer lab. In the second sentence, the pronoun It substitutes for computer lab as the subject.
|The project will run for three weeks. It will have a quick turnaround.||In the first sentence, the subject is a thing: project. In the second sentence, the pronoun It stands in for the project.|
A sentence may have more than one person, place, or thing as the subject. These subjects are called compound subjects. Compound subjects are useful when you want to discuss several subjects at once. In the following examples, "Desmond and Maria" and "Books, magazines and online articles" are compound subjects.
- Desmond and Maria have been working on that design for almost a year.
- Books, magazines, and online articles are all good resources.
You will often read a sentence that has more than one noun or pronoun in it. You may encounter a group of words that includes a preposition with a noun or a pronoun. Prepositions connect a noun, pronoun, or verb to another word that describes or modifies that noun, pronoun, or verb. Common prepositions include in, on, under, near, by, with, and about. A group of words that begin with a preposition is called a prepositional phrase. A prepositional phrase begins with a preposition and modifies or describes a word. It cannot act as the subject of a sentence. The following example includes the prepositional phrases "on a business trip," "with the famous pizza," "on the way" and "for lunch."
We went on a business trip. That restaurant with the famous pizza was on the way. We stopped for lunch.
Identify the subjects and the prepositional phrases in the following sentences.
- The gym is open until nine o’clock tonight.
- We went to the store to get some ice.
- The student with the most extra credit will win a homework pass.
- Maya and Tia found an abandoned cat by the side of the road.
- The driver of that pickup truck skidded on the ice.
- Anita won the race with time to spare.
- The people who work for that company were surprised about the merger.
- Working in haste means that you are more likely to make mistakes.
- The soundtrack has over sixty songs in languages from around the world.
- His latest invention does not work, but it has inspired the rest of us.
Once you locate the subject of a sentence, you can move on to the next part of a complete sentence: the verb. A verb is often an action word that shows what the subject is doing. A verb can also link the subject to a describing word. There are three types of verbs that you can use in a sentence: action verbs, linking verbs, or helping verbs.
A verb that connects the subject to an action is called an action verb. An action verb answers the question "What is the subject doing?" The following sentences include the action verbs barked and gave.
- The dog barked at the jogger.
- He gave a short speech before we ate.
A verb can often connect the subject of the sentence to a describing word. This type of verb is called a linking verb because it links the subject to a describing word. The following sentences include the linking verbs was and seemed.
- The coat was old and dirty.
- The clock seemed broken.
If you have trouble telling the difference between action verbs and linking verbs, remember that an action verb shows that the subject is doing something, whereas a linking verb simply connects the subject to another word that describes or modifies the subject. A few verbs can be used as either action verbs or linking verbs. In the following examples, the verb looked is paired with the subject boy, in one case as an action verb and in the other as a linking verb.
- Action Verb: The boy looked for his glove.
- Linking Verb: The boy looked tired.
Although both sentences start with the same words, the two sentences have completely different meanings. In the first sentence, the verb describes the boy’s action. In the second sentence, the verb describes the boy’s appearance.
A third type of verb is a helping verb. Helping verbs are used with the main verb to describe a mood or verb tense. Helping verbs are usually a form of be, do, or have. The word can is also used as a helping verb. In the following examples, is, does, have, and can are helping verbs and known, speak up, seen, and tell are action verbs.
- The restaurant is known for its variety of dishes.
- She does speak up when prompted in class.
- We have seen that movie three times.
- She can tell when someone walks on her lawn.
Find the verbs in the following sentences and decide whether each is an action, verb, linking verb, or a helping verb.
- The cat sounds ready to come back inside.
- We have not eaten dinner yet.
- It took four people to move the broken-down car.
- The book was filled with notes from class.
- We walked from room to room, inspecting for damages.
- Harold was expecting a package in the mail.
- The clothes still felt damp even though they had been through the dryer twice.
- The teacher who runs the studio is often praised for his restoration work on old masterpieces.
Agreement in writing refers to a consistent grammatical match between words. Subject-verb agreement describes the match between subjects and verbs. Because subjects and verbs are either singular or plural, the subject of a sentence and the verb of a sentence must agree with each other in number. That is, a singular subject belongs with a singular verb form, and a plural subject belongs with a plural verb form. In the examples below, the singular verb jumps is used with the singular subject cat, while the plural jump goes with plural subject cats.
- Singular: The cat jumps over the fence.
- Plural: The cats jump over the fence.
Regular verbs follow a predictable pattern. For example, in the third person singular, regular verbs always end in -s. Other forms of regular verbs do not end in -s.
|Person||Singular Form||Plural Form|
|First Person ("I")||I do.||We do.|
|Second Person ("you")||You do.||You do.|
|Third Person ("she," "he," singular "they" or "it")||He/She/They/It does.||They do.|
A note on singular they
They and their can now be used to refer to a single person whose gender is unknown or to a person who identifies as nonbinary, as in "A teacher should consider their students' responses. They should ask for student feedback." However, it is still considered awkward to use the singular they directly with a singular verb. So when referring to a single teacher, instead of the awkward "They has a duty to find out whether students are learning from their teaching," we could write, "They have a duty..." See the Oxford English Dictionary's "A Brief History of Singular They."
Complete the following sentences with the correct present tense form of be, have, or do.
- I ________ sure that you will succeed.
- They ________ front-row tickets to the show.
- He ________ a great Elvis impersonation.
- We ________ so excited to meet you in person!
- She ________ a fever and a sore throat.
- You ________ not know what you are talking about.
- You ________ all going to pass this class.
- She ________ not going to like that.
- It ________ appear to be the right size.
- They ________ ready to take this job seriously.
Types of subject-verb agreement errors
Errors in subject-verb agreement frequently occur when
- a sentence contains a compound subject;
- the subject of the sentence is separate from the verb;
- the subject of the sentence is an indefinite pronoun, such as anyone or everyone;
- the subject of the sentence is a collective noun, such as team or organization;
- the subject appears after the verb.
A compound subject is formed by two or more nouns and the coordinating conjunctions and, or, or nor. A compound subject can be made of singular subjects, plural subjects, or a combination of singular and plural subjects.
Compound subjects combined with and take a plural verb form. In the sentences below, the compound subjects are in bold.
|Subject type||Sample sentence||Explanation|
|Two singular subjects||Alicia and Miguel ride their bikes to the beach.||Alicia and Miguel are the singular subjects, which combine to form a plural compound subject, and ride is the plural verb.|
|Two plural subjects||The girls and the boys ride their bikes to the beach.||Girls and boys are the plural subjects, which combine to form a plural compound subject, and ride is the plural verb.|
|Singular and plural subjects||Alicia and the boys ride their bikes to the beach.||Alicia is a singular subject, boys is a plural subject; they combine to form a plural compound subject, and ride is the plural verb.|
Compound subjects combined with or and nor are treated separately. The verb must agree with the subject that is nearest to the verb.
|Subject type||Sample sentence||Explanation|
|Two singular subjects||Neither Elizabeth nor Rianna wants to eat at that restaurant.||Rianna is the singular subject closest to the verb, so the verb wants is in singular form. The other singular subject, Elizabeth, does not affect the verb form.|
|Two plural subjects||Neither the kids nor the adults want to eat at that restaurant.||Adults is the plural subject closest to the verb, so the verb want is in plural form. The other subject, kids, is plural but does not affect the verb form.|
|Singular and plural subjects||Neither Elizabeth nor the kids want to eat at that restaurant.||Kids is the plural subject closest to the verb, so the verb want is in plural form. The other subject, Elizabeth, is singular but does not affect the verb form.|
|Plural and singular subjects||
Neither the kids nor Elizabeth wants to eat at that restaurant.
|Elizabeth is the singular subject closest to the verb, so the verb wants is in singular form. The other subject, kids, is plural but does not affect the verb form.|
|Two singular subjects||Either Adauto or Jason takes the furniture out of the garage.||Jason is the singular subject closest to the verb, so the verb takes is in singular form. The other subject, Adauto, is singular but does not affect the verb form.|
|Two plural subjects||Either you two or the twins take the furniture out of the garage.||Twins is the plural subject closest to the verb, so the verb take is in plural form. The other subject, you two, is plural but does not affect the verb form.|
|Singular and plural subjects||Either Jason or the twins take the furniture out of the garage.||Twins is the plural subject closest to the verb, so the verb take is in plural form. The other subject, Jason, is singular but does not affect the verb form.|
|Plural and singular subjects||Either the twins or Jason takes the furniture out of the garage.||Jason is the singular subject closest to the verb, so the verb takes is in singular form. The other subject, twins, is plural but does not affect the verb form.|
If you can substitute the word they for the compound subject, then the sentence takes the third person plural verb form.
Separation of subjects and verbs
Sometimes a phrase or clause separates the subject from the verb. Often, prepositional phrases or dependent clauses add more information to the sentence and appear between the subject and the verb. These words in between subject and verb may distract the writer and lead them to a subject-verb agreement error.
One way to find the main subject and verb in this case is to cross out or ignore the phrases and clauses that begin with prepositions or dependent words. The subject of a sentence will never be in a prepositional phrase or dependent clause.
The following sentences each show a subject and verb separated by a prepositional phrase:
- The students with the best grades win the academic awards. (Students is the subject and win is the verb.)
- The puppy under the table is my favorite. (Puppy is the subject and is is the verb.)
The following is an example of a subject and verb separated by a dependent clause:
- The car that I bought has power steering and a sunroof. (Car is the subject and has is the verb.)
- The representatives who are courteous sell the most tickets. (Representatives is the subject and sell is the verb.)
Indefinite pronouns such as anybody, each, or all refer to an unspecified person, thing, or number. When an indefinite pronoun serves as the subject of a sentence, you will often use a singular verb form.
However, keep in mind that exceptions arise. Some indefinite pronouns may require a plural verb form. To determine whether to use a singular or plural verb with an indefinite pronoun, consider the noun that the pronoun would refer to. If the noun is plural, then use a plural verb with the indefinite pronoun.
|Indefinite Pronouns That Always Take a Singular Verb||Indefinite Pronouns That Can Take a Singular or Plural Verb|
|anybody, anyone, anything||All|
|everybody, everyone, everything||None|
|nobody, no one, nothing|
|somebody, someone, something|
|Sample sentence with the indefinite pronoun in bold and the verb in italics||Why the indefinite pronoun is plural or singular in this case|
|Singular: Everybody in the kitchen sings along when that song comes on the radio.||
The indefinite pronoun everybody takes a singular verb form, sings, because everybody refers to a group performing the same action as a single unit.
|Plural: All the people in the kitchen sing along when that song comes on the radio.||The indefinite pronoun all takes a plural verb form, sing, because all refers to the plural noun people. Because people is plural, all is plural.|
|Singular: All the cake is on the floor.||
In this sentence, the indefinite pronoun all takes a singular verb form, is, because all refers to the singular noun cake. Because cake is singular, all is singular.
A collective noun, such as family or group, is a noun that identifies more than one person, place, or thing and considers those people, places, or things one singular unit. Because collective nouns are counted as one, they are singular and require a singular verb. Some commonly used collective nouns are group, team, army, flock, family, and class, as in the following example.
- Singular: The class is going on a field trip. (Class is the subject and is is the verb.)
In this sentence, class is a collective noun. Although the class consists of many students, the class is treated as a singular unit and requires a singular verb form, is.
The subject follows the verb
In some sentences, the subject comes after the verb instead of before the verb. This may lead to a subject-verb agreement error because the writer may not recognize the subject and form the verb accordingly. The most common such sentences begin with here or there, as in the following examples.
- Here is my wallet! (Wallet is the subject and is is the verb.)
- There are thirty dolphins in the water. (Dolphins is the subject and are is the verb.)
One way to identify the subject and verb is by reversing the order of the sentence so the subject comes first, as we demonstrate below.
- "Here is my wallet!" becomes "My wallet is here." (Wallet is the subject and is is the verb.)
- "There are thirty dolphins in the water" becomes "Thirty dolphins are in the water." (Dolphins is the subject and are is the verb.)
Which of the following sentences have errors in subject-verb agreement? Correct any errors you find.
- My dog and cats chases each other all the time.
- The books that are in my library is the best I have ever read.
- Everyone are going to the concert except me.
- My family are moving to California.
- Here is the lake I told you about.
- There is the newspapers I was supposed to deliver.
- Which room is bigger?
- When are the movie going to start?
- My sister and brother cleans up after themselves.
- Some of the clothes is packed away in the attic.
Adapted by Anna Mills from Writing for Success, created by an author and publisher who prefer to remain anonymous, adapted and presented by the Saylor Foundation and licensed CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.