Self Teaching Unit:
Subject – Verb Agreement
© 2000, 1978 Margaret L. Benner All rights reserved.
Although you are probably already familiar with basic subject-verb agreement, this chapter begins with a quick review of basic agreement rules.
Subjects and verbs must AGREE with one another in number (singular or plural). Thus, if a subject is singular, its verb must also be singular; if a subject is plural, its verb must also be plural.
- In the present tense, nouns and verbs form plurals in opposite ways: nouns ADD an s to the singular form; verbs REMOVE the s from the singular form.
- These agreement rules do not apply to verbs used in the simple past tense without any helping verbs.
- The agreement rules do, however, apply to the following helping verbs when they are used with a main verb: is-are, was-were, has-have, does-do.
- The agreement rules do not apply to has-have when used as the SECOND helping verb in a pair.
- They do NOT apply to any other helping verbs, such as can, could, shall, should, may, might, will, would, must.
- The subject-verb agreement rules apply to all personal pronouns except I and you, which, although SINGULAR, require PLURAL forms of verbs.
- Now click on the link below to do exercise 1.
- Link to Exercise 1
- The remainder of this teaching unit deals with some more advanced subject-verb agreement rules and with exceptions to the original subject-verb agreement rule
- Compound Subject
- The word “compound” means “made up of two or more parts.” Two or more words can be compounded or linked by joining them with any of three words:
- and, or, and nor
- Here are some examples of compounding:
Compound nouns can function as a “compound subject.” In some instances, a compound subject poses special problems for the subject-verb agreement rule (+s, -s).
- However, instead of using two sentences (as above), we may choose to give the above information in one sentence.
- This sentence makes use of a compound subject (two subject nouns joined by and), illustrating a new rule about subject-verb agreement.
- Although each part of the compound subject is singular (ranger and camper), taken together (joined by and), each one becomes a part of a plural structure and, therefore, must take a plural verb (see) to agree in the sentence.
- SUBJECT-VERB RULE #1 – Two or more singular (or plural) subjects joined by and act as a plural compound subject and take a plural verb (singular + singular = plural).
- You can check the verb by substituting the pronoun they for the compound subject.
Or and nor as joiners work somewhat differently from and. While the word and seems to ADD things together, or and nor do not. They suggest a CHOICE.
- Look at this sentence.
This sentence makes use of a compound subject (two subject nouns joined together by or). Each part of the compound subject (ranger, camper) is singular. Even though both words function together as subject (joined by or), the subject still remains SINGULAR (ranger or camper) since a CHOICE is implied.
- This compound subject, therefore, requires a singular verb to agree with it.
- SUBJECT-VERB RULE #2 – Two or more SINGULAR subjects joined by or (or nor) act as a singular compound subject and, therefore, take a singular verb to agree.
- Note: Two or more plural subjects joined by or (or nor) would naturally take a plural verb to agree.
- However, or and nor can pose a more difficult problem.
- Thus far we have been working with compound subjects whose individual parts are both either singular or plural
- What if one part of the compound subject is singular and the other part is plural?
What form of a verb should be used in this case? Should the verb be singular to agree with one word? Or should the verb be plural to agree with the other?
1. If the individual parts of the compound subject are joined by and, always use a plural verb.
2. If the individual parts of the compound subject are joined by or or nor, use the verb form (singular or plural) which will agree with the subject closer to the verb.
- Now click on the link below to do exercise 2.
- Link to Exercise 2
- Group Nouns
- Some nouns which name groups can be either singular or plural depending upon their meaning in individual sentences.
- Because they can describe either the individuals in the group (more than one – plural), or the group as a single entity (one only – singular), these nouns pose special problems.
- However, there are some guidelines for deciding which verb form (singular or plural) to use with one of these nouns as the subject in a sentence.
If we refer to the group as a whole and, therefore, as a single unit, we consider the noun singular. In this case, we use a singular verb.
If, on the other hand, we are actually referring to the individuals within the group, then we consider the noun plural. In this case, we use a plural verb.
Either, Neither, and Subject-Verb Agreement
- September 12, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill last modified September 13, 2015
- Have you ever struggled with either or neither, wondering if they referred to subjects singular or plural, wondering if they took singular or plural verbs?
- Have you looked up either and neither only to find competing rules about their use, about whether they are indeed singular or plural?
Let’s look at both words and settle the issue of subject-verb agreement when they’re used as subjects. (There are other uses of either and neither, but we’re going to focus on only the one issue in this article.)
Here’s a tip that should prove helpful: there are different conditions to consider when you make your decisions about whether either and neither are singular or plural.
Under one condition, both words are always singular and take a singular verb.
Under the other condition, the choice between singular and plural will depend not only on the words either and neither, but on other words in your sentence as well.
Either and neither are pronouns. But they can also be conjunctions (correlative), adjectives, determiners, and even adverbs. When either word is used as a pronoun and as the subject of a sentence or clause—and it’s the only subject—it takes a singular verb. When one of the words is used to modify the single subject of a sentence, it takes a singular verb.
Let’s look at examples. I’ve included quite a few—several with similar wordings. Don’t be distracted by other words in the sentence—under the condition I outlined, both either and neither are singular, and they require singular verbs.
- Note that in a question format, the helping verb is the word that will be singular.
- Either diamond is a good choice.
- Neither sandwich tastes good.
- Neither was a very good singer.
- Neither were very good singers. X
- Neither one is a favorite of mine.
- Neither one are favorites. X
- Either one of your brothers seems capable of doing the work.
- Neither of my brothers wants to be left at home.
- Either of you is welcome any day.
- Either of you are welcome any day. X
- Neither of us considers you unimportant.
- Does either option require a signature?
- Does either boy want breakfast?
- Do either boy want breakfast? X
- Does either of the boys want breakfast?
- Do either of the boys want breakfast? X
- Does either one of the boys want breakfast?
- Does either one want breakfast?
- Does either want breakfast?
- Neither wants breakfast.
- Neither want breakfast. X
- Neither brother wants breakfast.
- Neither of the brothers wants breakfast.
- Neither of the brothers want breakfast. X
- Neither one wants breakfast.
- Does neither have a license?
- Do neither have a license? X
- So neither has a license.
- So neither have a license. X
- Doesn’t either of them want to go?
- Don’t either of them want to go? X
- Doesn’t either of your kids want dessert?
- Don’t either of your kids want dessert? X
- Does either of you want to go with me?
- Do either of you want to go with me? X
- Is either of your daughters a doctor?
- Is either daughter a doctor?
- Are either of your daughters a doctor? X
- Are either daughter a doctor? X
- Are either daughters doctors? X
- Has neither of them been a good fit?
- Have neither of them been a good fit? X
- Was neither a good choice?
- Were neither a good choice? X
Some of these that are right don’t sound right to the ear, do they? And some that are incorrect sound correct. But they are correct or incorrect as marked. At least grammatically correct or incorrect.
Those that truly sound wrong are the examples with the preposition of (of your daughters, of yours) following either or neither. But either and neither are still singular, even when followed by a prepositional phrase containing a plural object.
Most of the time we want to be grammatically correct. Yet correct isn’t always our first goal. In fiction we want our characters to speak (and think) as they actually would. Would your characters always speak correctly? That’s up to you to decide.
But many 3-D people speak sentences that would be considered incorrect in terms of proper grammar, so fictional characters can definitely do the same.
(I’m pretty sure that I regularly use several of these examples incorrectly when I say similar sentences.)
Still, it pays to know what is considered correct.
If you’re using the omniscient POV, you’ll probably want your narrator to use proper grammar. And if you’re writing for the business world, for a news organization, or for a school course—if you’re writing nonfiction—choose correct grammar unless you’re using improper grammar on purpose, maybe to create an effect or prove a point.
The second condition kicks in when there are alternative subjects that share a single verb. In this case we’re talking about two subjects linked by or or nor.
Look for the either/or and neither/nor constructions.
The basic subject-verb agreement rule in English is very simple. It states that a singular subject takes a singular verb, while a plural subject takes a plural verb. However, there are a few problems with this formulation of the rule that need to be mentioned.
To begin with, the rule makes it sound as if each and every verb has one singular form that is used with all singular subjects and one plural form that is used with all plural subjects. This is not true.
If we disregard the verb be and the modal auxiliaries, all verbs have one form that is used in the third person singular, that is, with the pronouns he, she, and it, and with subjects that could be replaced by one of these three pronouns, as in example (1) below, and one form that is used with all other subjects, i.e. first and second person singular subjects (2) and all types of plural subjects (3):
(1) My sister has a baby.
(2) I have a headache and you have one too.
(3) They know her well.
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Define subject-verb agreement.
- Identify common errors in subject-verb agreement.
In the workplace, you want to present a professional image. Your outfit or suit says something about you when meeting face-to-face, and your writing represents you in your absence.
Grammatical mistakes in your writing or even in speaking make a negative impression on coworkers, clients, and potential employers. Subject-verb agreement is one of the most common errors that people make.
Having a solid understanding of this concept is critical when making a good impression, and it will help ensure that your ideas are communicated clearly.
Agreement in speech and in writing refers to the proper grammatical match between words and phrases. Parts of sentences must agree, or correspond with other parts, in number, person, case, and gender.
- Number. All parts must match in singular or plural forms.
- Person. All parts must match in first person (I), second person (you), or third person (he, she, it, they) forms.
- Case. All parts must match in subjective (I, you, he, she, it, they, we), objective (me, her, him, them, us), or possessive (my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, their, theirs, our, ours) forms. For more information on pronoun case agreement, see Section 1.5.1 “Pronoun Agreement”.
- Gender. All parts must match in male or female forms.
Subject-verb agreement describes the proper 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. For more information on subjects and verbs, see Section 1.1 “Sentence Writing”.
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. Study the following regular verb forms in the present tense.
Add an -es to the third person singular form of regular verbs that end in -sh, -x, -ch, and -s. (I wish/He wishes, I fix/She fixes, I watch/It watches, I kiss/He kisses.)
- In these sentences, the verb form stays the same for the first person singular and the first person plural.
In these sentences, the verb form stays the same for the second person singular and the second person plural. In the singular form, the pronoun you refers to one person. In the plural form, the pronoun you refers to a group of people, such as a team.
In this sentence, the subject is mother. Because the sentence only refers to one mother, the subject is singular. The verb in this sentence must be in the third person singular form.
In this sentence, the subject is friends. Because this subject refers to more than one person, the subject is plural. The verb in this sentence must be in the third person plural form.
Many singular subjects can be made plural by adding an -s. Most regular verbs in the present tense end with an –s in the third person singular. This does not make the verbs plural.
Not all verbs follow a predictable pattern. These verbs are called irregular verbs. Some of the most common irregular verbs are be, have, and do. Learn the forms of these verbs in the present tense to avoid errors in subject-verb agreement.
Study the different forms of the verb to be in the present tense.
Study the different forms of the verb to have in the present tense.
Study the different forms of the verb to do in the present tense.
Errors in Subject-Verb Agreement
Errors in subject-verb agreement may 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.
Recognizing the sources of common errors in subject-verb agreement will help you avoid these errors in your writing. This section covers the subject-verb agreement errors in more detail.
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.
Compound subjects combined with or and nor are treated separately. The verb must agree with the subject that is nearest to the verb.
If you can substitute the word they for the compound subject, then the sentence takes the third person plural verb form.
As you read or write, you may come across a sentence that contains a phrase or clause that 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. However, the subject and the verb must still agree.
If you have trouble finding the subject and verb, 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 is an example of a subject and verb separated by a prepositional phrase:
- The following is an example of a subject and verb separated by a dependent clause:
Indefinite pronouns 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. View the chart to see a list of common indefinite pronouns and the verb forms they agree with.
- The indefinite pronoun everybody takes a singular verb form because everybody refers to a group performing the same action as a single unit.
The indefinite pronoun all takes a plural verb form because all refers to the plural noun people. Because people is plural, all is plural.
In this sentence, the indefinite pronoun all takes a singular verb form because all refers to the singular noun cake. Because cake is singular, all is singular.
A collective noun 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.
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.
You may encounter sentences in which the subject comes after the verb instead of before the verb. In other words, the subject of the sentence may not appear where you expect it to appear. To ensure proper subject-verb agreement, you must correctly identify the subject and the verb.
- In sentences that begin with here or there, the subject follows the verb.
- If you have trouble identifying the subject and the verb in sentences that start with here or there; it may help to reverse the order of the sentence so the subject comes first.
When you ask questions, a question word (who, what, where, when, why, or how) appears first. The verb and then the subject follow.
If you have trouble finding the subject and the verb in questions, try answering the question being asked.
When to Add s to a Verb – Grammar and Punctuation
Please note: This original post from April 2007 has been updated and replaced by a new version of When to Add s to a Verb, published on May 16, 2017.
If you feel confident about forming plurals in English by adding an s or es at the end of the word, I’m about to make you feel a little wobbly.
Although most noun plurals are formed this way, only verbs with a third-person singular noun or pronoun (he, she, boat, courage) as a subject ever have an added s on the end.
With plural nouns (but also the singular pronouns I and you) there is never an added s at the end of a verb.
For example, which verb is plural, talk or talks? Because you would say, “He talks,” and he is a third-person singular pronoun, talks is a singular verb.
You would say, “The people talk,” and people is a plural noun, so talk is a plural verb.
Example: The position listed on the university Web site caught my attention because my education, experience, and training closely parallel/parallels your needs.
Answer: This sentence has two sets of subjects and verbs. The first subject/verb combination is position/caught. The second set of subjects is education, experience, and training, which is plural.
We would say, “They parallel” so we must write or say, “…my education, experience, and training closely parallel your needs.”
Example: If he or she needs/need me, I will be in the other room.
Answer: In this sentence, he and she are the subjects; however, they are connected by or so we use the singular verb needs.
1. When he and Jenny walks/walk to work, they hold hands.
2. They leaves/leave at the end of the year for a month-long vacation.
3. Her dog, cat, and chicken gets/get along well together.
4. When he gets/get angry, his face turns red.
5. She goes/go away every August.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. When he and Jenny walk to work, they hold hands.
2. They leave at the end of the year for a month-long vacation.
3. Her dog, cat, and chicken get along well together.
4. When he gets angry, his face turns red.
5. She goes away every August.
Posted on Saturday, April 14, 2007, at 8:44 pm
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604 Comments on When to Add s to a Verb
Why Does “I” Take Plural Verbs?
@grammargirl why do we use plural form of verbs with the singular subject “I”. e.g. I go to the store. #subjectverb #agreement. — Aaron Heintz (@AaronHeintz) May 16, 2013
Verbs Have a Number, Tense, and Person
When he talks about singular and plural, he’s talking about what grammarians call number, but the assumption that “go” is a plural form is not entirely correct. In addition to number, verb forms can also encode tense and person.
English Has Different Types of Pronouns
We talked about person in Episode 259, when the topic was first-person, second-person, and third-person pronouns. To summarize, the first-person singular pronouns are the forms of “I,” including “me,” “my,” “mine,” and “myself.”
First-person plural pronouns are forms of “we.”
Second-person pronouns are the forms of “you.” In present-day English, we don’t distinguish between singular and plural for second-person pronouns, except for the singular form “yourself” and plural “yourselves.” “You” can refer to one person (“you get the passenger seat” ) or many people (“would you please form a line in front of the counter?”).
Third-person singular pronouns are the forms of “he,” “she,” and “it.”
Third-person plural pronouns are the forms of “they.”
How Can One Verb Tell Us All These Things?
Now let’s look at the verb “go” and how it can give information about all three of these things–number, tense, and person.
In the form “goes,” the “-s” ending tells us not only that it’s in the present tense, but also that its subject is third person singular: “he,” or “she,” or maybe “Squiggly.
” So the answer to why the singular verb “goes” doesn’t agree with the singular subject “I” is that “goes” is also third person, while “I” is first person. They don’t match.
Syncretism Gives Us the “Everything Else” Verb Tense
If “goes” is the third-person singular present tense form, then what form is just “go”? The short answer is that it’s the “everything else” form for the present tense.
Traditional grammar books will often list this same form five times, for first- and second-person singular, and for first-, second-, and third-person plural.
However, from a learning perspective, it’s easier just to think of “go” as a form that can take on whatever combination of person and number you need in the present tense, other than third-person singular.
The technical term for this kind of situation, in which one word form can fill more than one function, is syncretism [sink-reh-tism], and English has a lot of it. In fact, we’ve already run across another example of it, with the second-person pronouns, where “you” can be either singular or plural.
In older stages of English, there were different pronouns for second-person singular and plural. The second-person singular pronouns were forms of “thou,” and “you” was used for the plural. But these days, “thou” isn’t used in everyday English, and instead, “you” serves as both a singular and a plural second-person pronoun.