Subject Verb Agreement Study Guide
Subject Verb Agreement
Language is fossil poetry.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803–1882)
Along with fragments and run-ons, poor subject–verb agreement will detract from your writing and distort your meaning. In this lesson, learn how to steer clear of this writing faux pas.
It is essential that all of the subjects and verbs in your writing (and speaking) are compatible in both number and person. If your sentence has a singular subject (referring to only one person, place, or thing), then it must be coupled with a singular verb. Likewise, if your sentence has a plural subject (referring to more than one person, place, or thing), then it must be coupled with a plural verb.
Singular: Tommy plans to run in the cross-country race. The dog likes to sleep on the porch under the rocking chair. Plural: Kevin and Nathan usually shoot hoops on Saturdays. The bees fly from flower to flower gathering pollen.
Did you notice the -s endings of the singular verbs in these sentences? Unlike nouns, which usually have an -s on the end of a plural, singular verbs end in -s, while the plural verbs do not.
Most verbs are easily recognizable in our writing and speaking—they tend to move the sentence along—so when any subject–verb agreement is incorrect, it is so easily recognizable. This is especially true of the verb be, the most widely used verb form in the English language. The table below shows it is conjugated according to number, form, and person.
Did you notice that the verb be doesn't contain the word be at all? It is made up of the verbs am, is, are, was, and were, and these are be-ing verbs, wouldn't you agree?
I am we are you are he/she/it is they are
Even though we may hear the verb be used casually (and quite widely in some instances) in spoken language, this usage is incorrect in standard English. Be only follows a subject in a sentence when it's coupled with a helping verb (for example, can be, should be, will be, could be).
Incorrect: She be going to school late this morning. We be going late, too. Correct: She is going to school late this morning. We are going late, too.
Compound Subjects and Verbs
Sometimes you may have two or more subjects sharing the same verb; this is referred to as a compound subject. When you have a compound subject, you must use the conjunctions and, or, or neither . . . nor to connect them together.
- Mom or Dad was supposed to pick us up at the movies.
- Neither Mom nor Dad was supposed to pick us up at the movies.
- Mom and Dad are supposed to pick us up at the movies.