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Humanities Libertexts

17.9: Subject and Verb

Subject agreement is that the agreement of subjects and verbs.

  • Singular: The whale, which doesn’t mature sexually until six or seven years old and which has only one calf per year, is at risk for extinction because it reproduces so slowly.
  • Plural: During election season, several civic groups sponsor public debates in which candidates present their views and audience members ask questions.
  • Singular: Digging a few inches into the dunes, even at 750 feet above the valley floor, reveals wet sand.
  • Plural: The dunes comprise small rocks and dry, sandy soil that constantly form strange designs under the ever-present wind.

What Is Subject-Verb Agreement?

Subject-verb requires that the main verb - the verb starting the predicate - complements the “root” noun regardless of what other information is in the way (i.e. prepositional phrases, especially ones that begin with “of”).

Example \(\PageIndex{1}\):

  • Characteristics of the middle child often include an equitable temperament and high feelings of security and self-esteem.
  • The opportunity cost of loaning out the funds is usually reflected in the interest rate.
  • A certain percentage of the cars produced by major manufacturers meets stricter emission standards in order for the company to sell their products in regulated regions.

Other guidelines for making subjects and verbs agree include:

  • Non-count nouns — those that don’t have a singular or plural form, such as furniture, baggage, poetry, melancholy — take a singular verb.
  • Two or more singular nouns joined by an “and” take a plural verb: A timely, relevant topic and an environment of trust produce a good class discussion.
  • When two nouns differing in number are joined by “or,” the verb should take the form of the noun closest to it: Most viewers of the painting assume that either the monkey’s antics or the handler’s chagrin causes the young men’s laughter.

Rules

Pronouns (words such as it, her, them, this, someone, who, him, they, themselves, herself, etc.) replace specific nouns (persons, places, or things). Like subjects and verbs, pronouns and nouns need to agree in number: in whether they are singular or plural. They also need to agree in gender: masculine, feminine, or inclusive (both).

Three specific instances, though, can cause problems:

  1. The nouns “each” and “one” are singular and take singular pronouns; “either” or “neither” is singular unless it specifically refers to plural alternatives.
  2. When using singular nouns that refer to both sexes or for which the gender is not known, use both masculine and feminine pronouns together (him or her, he or she, himself or herself, his or her) or rewrite the sentence to make the noun and the pronoun both plural. (If all of the members of a group are of one gender, it is acceptable to use the male or female pronoun, as in “Each member of the football team will take his gear onto the bus.”)
  3. Some nouns can be either singular or plural: audience, group, team, unit, class, and others. Use a singular pronoun if the group is acting as a unit, as in “The audience expressed its appreciation with loud applause.” Use a plural pronoun if the group is acting as individual members, as in “The team went their separate ways, some showering, some leaving the stadium, some drinking champagne, and some going home to sleep.” [In the second example, it’s a good idea to write “team members” to be clear.]

The words “they” and “their” are third-person plural personal pronouns in Modern English. The singular “they” and “their” is used as a gender-neutral singular rather than as a plural pronoun, but the correctness of this usage is disputed.

Example \(\PageIndex{2}\):

  • Every one of the studies indicated their its methodology.
  • Neither Jackson nor Juarez believed they he had been represented unfairly.
  • Each researcher included a control group with their his his or her test group.
  • By 1999, the lacrosse team had outgrown their its space.
  • Neither a crocodile nor a lion are is a suitable pet.
  • Either Ed or Bill are is a plumber.

When the individual nouns are plural, standard noun/verb agreement applies:

  • Neither crocodiles nor lions is are suitable pets.
  • Either Ed and Bill or Ted and Jeff is are plumbers.

Unnecessary Tense Shift

Verbs are action words. “Tense” refers to the time when an action takes place: past, present, or future. Necessary tense shifts simply make it clear to your reader when actions have taken, are taking, or will take place. When you “shift tense unnecessarily,” however, it means you change the times when actions are taking place within a section of text in a way that doesn’t seem to make sense. Notice how the tense changes cause confusion in the following examples:

  • In February 2003, the Sefton City Council passed an ordinance that limited the number of dogs city residents could keep on their property to three. Several residents objected and formally petitioned the council to repeal the ordinance, but the council upheld it. Their reasoning is that having more than three dogs creates potentially dangerous situations. In November 2004, however, changes in the Council’s membership resulted in the ordinance being repealed.
  • While St. Cloud struggles with keeping rental housing from dominating the housing market, other communities in central Minnesota undertook several initiatives to build more apartments and condominiums.

The best way to find unnecessary tense shifts is to read a piece of writing through one time just looking for tense and asking yourself whether each verb tense accurately reflects the time period it took place, takes place, or will take place in. Start by using a highlighter to mark each verb, and then ask yourself if the “time” is correct for each one. The correction:

  • In February 2003, the Sefton City Council passed an ordinance that limited the number of dogs city residents could keep on their property to three. Several residents objected and formally petitioned the council to repeal the ordinance, but the council upheld it. Their reasoning was that having more than three dogs creates potentially dangerous situations. In November 2004, however, changes in the Council’s membership resulted in the ordinance being repealed.

(No reason exists to believe that those who then thought that three or more dogs in a household created a dangerous situation have changed their minds or that dogs' behavior in a group of three or more has changed. The composition of the council had changed, and the composition of the city council having changed, so the city council voted differently).

The following example shows that the action took place in the past:

  • While St. Cloud struggled with keeping rental housing from dominating the housing market, other communities in central Minnesota undertook several initiatives to build more apartments and condominiums.

This following example shows the action is taking place in the present or is referring to a current situation:

  • While St. Cloud struggles with keeping rental housing from dominating the housing market, other communities in central Minnesota are undertaking several initiatives to build more apartments and condominiums.
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