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Grammar Lesson: Subject-Verb Agreement Situations

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Dec 14, 2010

Here are some important rules and situations regarding subject-verb agreement.

  • Singular nouns and pronouns use the contraction doesn't while plural nouns and pronouns use the contraction don't.
      This piece doesn't look like the one we need. (singular noun subject)
      He doesn't need to exercise that frequently. (singular pronoun subject)
      These occasions don't need to be photographed. (plural noun subject)
      They don't remember your saying that. (plural pronoun subject)
  • Note: Avoid using contractions in formal writing. Contractions are allowable in dialogue.

  • A collective noun (a name that refers to a group of people, animals, or things, though they are singular in form) can be used as a singular or plural noun.
  • If the collective noun refers to a unit or as a whole, use a singular verb and pronoun.
      The squad is meeting this afternoon. Its president is Kanisha. (Squad is considered a unit since all of its members will be meeting as a unit. Thus, Its [not Their] is an appropriate pronoun reference.)
  • When a group is considered as individuals, the collective noun is plural.
      The squad brought their notebooks. (Squad refers to individual members so the pronoun their is warranted.)
  • Some nouns that look as if they are plural take singular verbs and pronouns. These nouns include civics, economics, genetics, gymnastics, mathematics, news, physics, social studies, and others.
      Physics is a challenging subject for Mitch because it demands much time and intelligence. (It is a pronoun reference to physics.)
      Social studies is an interesting subject.

An expression of an amount, including fractions, measurements, percentages, and time periods, can be singular or plural depending on its use.

      Two-sixths equals one-third. (Two-sixths is considered a single unit.)
      Sixteen hours is a very long time to wait. (Sixteen hours is a unit of time, one block of time according to the sentence.)
      Five dollars were left on the table. (These are five separate dollars; use the plural verb, were.)
      Two-thirds of the drummers are practicing. (Drummers is plural; use the plural verb, are.)

A verb that precedes the sentence's subject agrees with the subject in number. In the following sentences, the verb is in italics, and the subject is underlined.

      Here is a fortune cookie for you. (singular subject and verb)
      There are seven board games over there. (plural subject and verb)

The title of a book, city, country, film, magazine, organization, painting, sculpture, or song that is plural still takes a singular verb. (The italicized subjects and the underlined verbs below are singular.)

      Des Moines is Iowa's capital city.
      The Rolling Stones was my uncle's favorite rock group.

When a relative pronoun, such as that, which, or who, starts an adjective clause, the clause's verb agrees in number with the noun or pronoun to which the relative pronoun refers.

      The woman who is directing the chorus is Ms. Linden. (Who refers to the singular noun, woman.)
      The ladies who are singing together are Kate and Moe. (Who takes a plural verb, are, because it refers back to ladies, a plural noun.)
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