One of the most common types of grammatical errors is incorrect subject-verb agreement.
The Rule: The main verb of a sentence must agree with the subject of the sentence in number. A singular subject must have the correct singular form of the verb, and a plural subject must have the correct plural form of the verb.
- Wrong: The ring with the sapphires and diamonds glitter brightly when held in the candlelight.
- Right: The ring with the sapphires and diamonds glitters brightly when held in the candlelight.
To understand subject-verb agreement, you must identify the subject and main verb.
What is the subject? In grammar, "subject" does not mean "what it's about." The subject is the noun that is doing the action in the sentence. The subject here is the singular noun “ring.” It’s tricky because there are plural nouns in the sentence: “sapphires and diamonds.” While sapphires and diamonds do indeed glitter, they are not the subjects of this sentence. They are part of the descriptive phrase "with sapphires and diamonds," which describes the ring. (This type of phrase is also called a participial phrase.) According to the structure of this sentence, the ring is doing the glittering, not the diamonds and sapphires.
What is the main verb? The main verb is the action that the subject is doing. In the example above, it is “to glitter.” The singular form of this verb is “glitters,” while the plural form is “glitter.” Because it is only one ring doing the glittering, then the correct form is “glitters.”
Stripped to its essentials, the sentence would read “The ring glitters.”
Wrong: Delayed by an accident on the interstate, the caravan of school buses were woefully late to arrive at the amusement park.
Right: Delayed by an accident on the interstate, the caravan of school buses was woefully late to arrive at the amusement park.
“Caravan” is the subject of this sentence, not “buses.” The main verb is “was.” Stripped down, this sentence would read “The caravan was late.” When a phrase starting with a preposition (of, to, on, about, with, at, for, above, between, etc) gets stuck between the subject and the main verb, it can be confusing. But the prepositional phrase “of school buses” qualifies the subject, “caravan.”
Choose the correct verb between the two verbs in parentheses.
- My brother, who is always hungry after wrestling practice, (wolf/wolfs) down his dinner.
- The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears (is/are) my favorite.
- The cookie with chocolate chips and macadamia nuts (has/have) my vote.
- The rivalry between the Celtics and the Lakers (is/are) arguably the most famous in basketball.
- Flints found in the region extending from the Tigris to the Euphrates (attest/attests) to the presence of primitive humans as far back as 10,000 BCE.
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