Skip to main content
[ "article:topic" ]
Humanities Libertexts

5.6: Verbs (Part 2)

  • Page ID
  • Subject & Verb Agreement


    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    The basic idea behind sentence agreement is pretty simple: all the parts of your sentence should match (or agree). Verbs need to agree with their subjects in number (singular or plural) and in person (first, second, or third). In order to check agreement, you simply need to find the verb and ask who or what is doing the action of that verb.


    Agreement based on grammatical person (first, second, or third person) is found mostly between verb and subject. For example, you can say “I am” or “he is,” but not “I is” or “he am.” This is because the grammar of the language requires that the verb and its subject agree in person. The pronouns I and he are first and third person respectively, as are the verb forms am and is. The verb form must be selected so that it has the same person as the subject.


    Agreement based on grammatical number can occur between verb and subject, as in the case of grammatical person discussed above. In fact the two categories are often conflated within verb conjugation patterns: there are specific verb forms for first person singular, second person plural and so on. Some examples:

    • I really am (1st pers. singular) vs. We really are (1st pers. plural)
    • The boy sings (3rd pers. singular) vs. The boys sing (3rd pers. plural)

    More Examples

    Compound subjects are plural, and their verbs should agree. Look at the following sentence for an example:

    A pencil, a backpack, and a notebook were issued to each student.

    Verbs will never agree with nouns that are in prepositional phrases. To make verbs agree with their subjects, follow this example:

    The direction of the three plays is the topic of my talk.

    The subject of “my talk” is direction, not plays, so the verb should be singular.

    In the English language, verbs usually follow subjects. But when this order is reversed, the writer must make the verb agree with the subject, not with a noun that happens to precede it. For example:

    Beside the house stand sheds filled with tools.

    The subject is sheds; it is plural, so the verb must be stand.


    All regular verbs (and nearly all irregular ones) in English agree in the third-person singular of the present indicative by adding a suffix of either -s or -es.

    Look at the present tense of to love, for example:

    Person Number
    Singular Plural
    First I love we love
    Second you love you love
    Third he/she/it loves they love

    The highly irregular verb to be is the only verb with more agreement than this in the present tense:

    Person Number
    Singular Plural
    First I am we are
    Second you are you are
    Third he/she/it is they are

    Here’s a list of several irregular past tense verbs.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{6}\)

    Choose the correct verb to make the sentences agree:

    1. Ann (walk / walks) really slowly.
    2. You (is / am / are) dating Tom?
    3. Donna and April (get / gets) along well.
    4. Chris and Ben (is / am / are) the best duo this company has ever seen.
    1. Ann walks really slowly.
    2. You are dating Tom?
    3. Donna and April get along well.
    4. Chris and Ben are the best duo this company has ever seen.

    Verb Tense Consistency

    One of the most common mistakes in writing is a lack of tense consistency. Writers often start a sentence in one tense but ended up in another. Look back at that sentence. Do you see the error? The first verb start is in the present tense, but ended is in the past tense. The correct version of the sentence would be “Writers often start a sentence in one tense but end up in another.”

    These mistakes often occur when writers change their minds halfway through writing the sentence, or when they come back and make changes but only end up changing half the sentence. It is very important to maintain a consistent tense, not just in a sentence but across paragraphs and pages. Decide if something happened, is happening, or will happen and then stick with that choice.

    Read through the following paragraphs. Can you spot the errors in tense?


    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    If you want to pick up a new outdoor activity, hiking is a great option to consider. It’s a sport that is suited for a beginner or an expert—it just depended on the difficulty hikes you choose. However, even the earliest beginners can complete difficult hikes if they pace themselves and were physically fit.

    Not only is hiking an easy activity to pick up, it also will have some great payoffs. As you walked through canyons and climbed up mountains, you can see things that you wouldn’t otherwise. The views are breathtaking, and you will get a great opportunity to meditate on the world and your role in it. The summit of a mountain is unlike any other place in the world.

    What errors did you spot? Let’s take another look at this passage. This time, the tense-shifted verbs have been bolded, and the phrases they belong to have been underlined:

    If you want to pick up a new outdoor activity, hiking is a great option to consider. It’s a sport that is suited for a beginner or an expert—it just depended on the difficulty hikes you choose. However, even the earliest beginners can complete difficult hikes if they pace themselves and were physically fit.

    Not only is hiking an easy activity to pick up, it also will have some great payoffsAs you walked through canyons and climbed up mountains, you can see things that you wouldn’t otherwise. The views are breathtaking, and you will get a great opportunity to meditate on the world and your role in it. The summit of a mountain is unlike any other place in the world.

    As we mentioned earlier, you want to make sure your whole passage is consistent in its tense. You may have noticed that the most of the verbs in this passage are in present tense—this is especially apparent if you ignore those verbs that have been bolded. Now that we’ve established that this passage should be in the present tense, let’s address each of the underlined segments:

    • It’s a sport that is suited for a beginner or an expert—it just depended on the difficulty hikes you choose.
      • depended should be the same tense as is; it just depends on the difficulty
    • if they pace themselves and were physically fit.
      • were should be the same tense as pace; if they pace themselves and are physically fit.
    • Not only is hiking an easy activity to pick up, it also will have some great payoffs.
      • will have should be the same tense as is; it also has some great pay offs
    • As you walked through canyons and climbed up mountains
      • walked and climbed are both past tense, but this doesn’t match the tense of the passage as a whole. They should both be changed to present tense: As you walk through canyons and climb up mountains.
    •  The views are breathtaking, and you will get a great opportunity to meditate on the world and your role in it.
      • will get should be the same tense as are; you get a great opportunity

    Here’s the corrected passage as a whole; all edited verbs have been bolded:

    If you want to pick up a new outdoor activity, hiking is a great option to consider. It’s a sport that can be suited for a beginner or an expert—it just depends on the difficulty hikes you choose. However, even the earliest beginners can complete difficult hikes if they pace themselves and are physically fit.

    Not only is hiking an easy activity to pick up, it also has some great payoffs. As you walk through canyons and climb up mountains, you can see things that you wouldn’t otherwise. The views are breathtaking, and you get a great opportunity to meditate on the world and your role in it. The summit of a mountain is unlike any other place in the world.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{7}\)

    Read the following sentences and identify any errors in verb tense:

    1. Whenever you go to the store, you should have made a list and stick to it.
    2. This experiment turned out to be much more complicated than I thought it would be. I ended up with a procedure that was seventeen steps long, instead of the original eight that I planned.
    3. I applied to some of the most prestigious medical schools. I hope the essays I write get me in!
    1. have made and stick do not match tense. The sentence should read, “Whenever you go to the store, you should make a list and stick to it.”
    2. This sentence is correct.
    3. applied and write do not match tense. If you’ve already applied, hopefully you’ve already written your essays as well! The sentences should read, “I applied to some of the most prestigious medical schools. I hope the essays I wrote get me in!”

    Non-Finite Verbs

    Just when we thought we had verbs figured out, we’re brought face-to-face with a new animal: the non-finite verbs. These words look similar to verbs we’ve already been talking about, but they act quite different than those other verbs.

    By definition, a non-finite verb cannot serve as the root of an independent clause. In practical terms, this means that they don’t serve as the action of a sentence. They also don’t have a tense. While the sentence around them may be past, present, or future tense, the non-finite verbs themselves are neutral. There are three types of non-finite verbs: gerunds, participles, and infinitives.


    Gerunds all end in -ingskiingreadingdancingsinging, etc. Gerunds act like nouns and can serve as subjects or objects of sentences. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

    The following sentences illustrate some uses of gerunds:

    • Swimming is fun.
      • Here, the subject is swimming, the gerund.
      • The verb is the linking verb is.
    • I like swimming.
      • This time, the subject of this sentence is the pronoun I.
      • The verb is like.
      • The gerund swimming becomes the direct object.
    • I never gave swimming all that much effort.
    • Do you fancy going out?
    • After being elected president, he moved with his family to the capital.

    Gerunds can be created using helping verbs as well:

    • Being deceived can make someone feel angry.
    • Having read the book once before makes me more prepared.

    Often the “doer” of the gerund is clearly signaled:

    • We enjoyed singing yesterday (we ourselves sang)
    • The cat responded by licking the cream (the cat licked the cream)
    • His heart is set on being awarded the prize (he hopes that he himself will be awarded the prize)
    • Tomás likes eating apricots (Tomás himself eats apricots)

    However, sometimes the “doer” must be overtly specified, typically in a position immediately before the non-finite verb:

    • We enjoyed their singing.
    • We were delighted at Bianca being awarded the prize.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{8}\)

    Identify the gerunds and their roles in the following sentences:

    1. Sam was really bad at gardening.
    2. Studying is one of Jazz’s favorite things to do.
    3. Danny just wanted to go skateboarding.
    1. Sam was really bad at gardeningGardening is the object of the prepositional phrase “bad at gardening.”
    2. Studying is one of Jazz’s favorite things to do. Studying is the subject of the sentence.
    3. Danny just wanted to go skateboardingSkateboarding is the direct object of the sentence.


    participle is a form of a verb that is used in a sentence to modify a noun, noun phrase, verb, or verb phrase, and then plays a role similar to an adjective or adverb. It is one of the types of nonfinite verb forms.

    The two types of participle in English are traditionally called the present participle (forms such as writingsinging and raising) and the past participle (forms such as writtensung and raised).

    The Present Participle

    Even though they look exactly the same, gerunds and present participles do different things. As we just learned, the gerund acts as a noun: e.g., “I like sleeping“; “Sleeping is not allowed.” Present participles, on the other hand, act similarly to an adjective or adverb: e.g., “The sleeping girl over there is my sister”; “Breathing heavily, she finished the race in first place.”

    The present participle, or participial phrases (clauses) formed from it, are used as follows:

    • as an adjective phrase modifying a noun phrase: The man sitting over there is my uncle.
    • adverbially, the subject being understood to be the same as that of the main clause: Looking at the plans, I gradually came to see where the problem lay. He shot the man, killing him.
    • more generally as a clause or sentence modifier: Broadly speaking, the project was successful.

    The present participle can also be used with the helping verb to be to form a type of present tense: Jim was sleepingThis is something we learned a little bit about in helping verbs and tense. 

    The Past Participle

    Past participles often look very similar to the simple past tense of a verb: finished, danced, etc. However, some verbs have different forms. Reference lists will be your best help in finding the correct past participle. Here is one such list of participles. Here’s a short list of some of the most common irregular past participles you’ll use:

    Verb Simple Past Past Participle
    to be was/were been
    to become became become
    to begin began begun
    to come came come
    to do did done
    to drink drank drunk
    to eat ate eaten
    to get got gotten
    to give gave given
    to go went gone
    to know knew know
    to run ran run
    to see saw seen
    to show showed shown
    to speak spoke spoken
    to take took taken
    to throw threw thrown
    to write wrote written


    Words like bought and caught are the correct past participles—not boughten or caughten.

    Past participles are used in a couple of different ways:

    • as an adjective phrase: The chicken eaten by the children was contaminated.
    • adverbially: Seen from this perspective, the problem presents no easy solution.
    • in a nominative absolute construction, with a subject: The task finished, we returned home.

    The past participle can also be used with the helping verb to have to form a type of past tense: The chicken has eatenThis is something we learned about in helping verbs and tense.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{9}\)

    Identify the participles in the following sentences, as well as the functions they perform:

    1. Tucker had always wanted a pet dog.
    2. Having been born in the 1990s, Amber often found herself surrounded by nostalgia.
    3. Rayssa was practicing her flute when everything suddenly went wrong.
    1. The past participle is wanted. In this case, it is used alongside the helping verb had to form the past tense.
    2. Having been born in the 1990s is a present participle phrase. It is used adverbially, and the subject is the same as the subject of the main phrase: Amber. Additionally, been is the past participle. It is used alongside the helping verb havingto give a sense of the past tense.
    3. Practicing is the present participle. It, along with the helping verb was, create a sense of continuity or process.  


    The past participle can also be used to form the passive voice: The chicken was eatenWe’ll discuss the passive voice more in Text: Active and Passive Voice.


    To be or not to be, that is the question.


    The infinitive is the basic dictionary form of a verb, usually preceded by to (when it’s not, it’s called the bare infinitive, which we’ll discuss more later). Thus to go is an infinitive. There are several different uses of the infinitive. They can be used alongside verbs, as a noun phrase, as a modifier, or in a question.

    With Other Verbs

    The to-infinitive is used with other verbs (we’ll discuss exceptions when we talk about the bare infinitive):

    • I aim to convince him of our plan’s ingenuity.
    • You already know that he’ll fail to complete the task.

    You can also use multiple infinitives in a single sentence: “Today, I plan to run three miles, to clean my room, and to update my budget.” All three of these infinitives follow the verb plan. Other verbs that often come before infinitives include wantconvincetryable, and like.

    As a Noun Phrase

    The infinitive can also be used to express an action in an abstract, general way: “To err is human”; “To know me is to love me.” No one in particular is completing these actions. In these sentences, the infinitives act as the subjects.

    Infinitives can also serve as the object of a sentence. One common construction involves a dummy subject (it): “It was nice to meetyou.”

    As a Modifier

    Infinitives can be used as an adjective (e.g., “A request to see someone” or “The man to save us”) or as an adverb (e.g., “Keen to geton,” “Nice to listen to,” or “In order to win“).

    In Questions

    Infinitives can be used in elliptical questions as well, as in “I don’t know where to go.”


    The infinitive is also the usual dictionary form or citation form of a verb. The form listed in dictionaries is the bare infinitive, although the to-infinitive is often used in referring to verbs or in defining other verbs: “The word amble means ‘to walk slowly'”; “How do we conjugate the verb to go?”

    Certain helping verbs do not have infinitives, such willcan, and may.

    Split Infinitives?

    One of the biggest controversies among grammarians and style writers has been the appropriateness of separating the two words of the to-infinitive as in “to boldly go.” Despite what a lot of people have declared over the years, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this construction. It is 100 percent grammatically sound.


    Part of the reason so many authorities have been against this construction is likely the fact that in languages such as Latin, the infinitive is a single word, and cannot be split. However, in English the infinitive (or at least the to-infinitive) is two words, and a split infinitive is a perfectly natural construction.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{10}\)

    Identify the infinitives in the following sentences:

    1. Paulina is the girl to beat.
    2. It was really nice to hear from you again.
    3. It looks like Dash wants to fail.
    1. The infinitive to beat is used in this instance. It acts as an adjective, describing what kind of girl Paulina is.
    2. The infinitive hear is used in this instance. It acts as the object of the sentence.
    3. The infinitive to fail is used in this instance. It works along with the verb want.

    The Bare Infinitive

    As we mentioned previously, the infinitive can sometimes occur without the word to. The form without to is called the bare infinitive (the form with to is called the to-infinitive). In the following sentences both sit and to sit would each be considered an infinitive:

    • I want to sit on the other chair.
    • I can sit here all day.

    Infinitives have a variety of uses in English. Certain contexts call for the to-infinitive form, and certain contexts call for the bare infinitive; they are not normally interchangeable, except in occasional instances like after the verb help, where either can be used.

    As we mentioned earlier, some verbs require the bare infinitive instead of the to-infinitive:

    • The helping verb do
      • Does she dance?
      • Zi doesn’t sing.
    • Helping verbs that express tense, possibility, or ability like willcan, could, should, would, and might
      • The bears will eat you if they catch you.
      • Lucas and Gerardo might go to the dance.
      • You should give it a try.
    • Verbs of perception, permission, or causation, such as seewatchhear, makelet, and have (after a direct object)
      • Look at Caroline go!
      • You can’t make me talk.
      • It’s so hard to let someone else finish my work.

    The bare infinitive can be used as the object in such sentences like “What you should do is make a list.” It can also be used after the word why to ask a question: “Why reveal it?”

    The bare infinitive can be tricky, because it often looks exactly like the present tense of a verb. Look at the following sentences for an example:

    • You lose things so often.
    • You can lose things at the drop of a hat.

    In both of these sentences, we have the word lose, but in the first sentence it’s a present tense verb, while in the second it’s a bare infinitive. So how can you tell which is which? The easiest way is to try changing the subject of the sentence and seeing if the verb should change:

    • She loses things so often.
    • She can lose things at the drop of a hat.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{11}\)

    Identify the infinitives in the following sentences:

    1. What you should do is stop talking for a moment and listen.
    2. Oh, that must be Lebo at the door.
    3. Why walk when I could run?
    1. What you should do is stop talking for a moment and listen.
    • There are two infinitives in this sentence: stop and listen. They are both the objects of the sentence. This sentence also includes the gerund talking, which the object in the phrase “stop talking.”
    1. Oh, that must be Lebo at the door.
    • The infinitive be works with the helping verb must.
    1. Why walk when I could run?


    • Was this article helpful?