Subject Verb Agreement Study Guide (page 2)
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.
When you use the conjunctions or or nor, the subjects are thought of as separate units, and therefore take a singular verb. The same is true for plural subjects joined by or or nor, except that the verb used will be plural.
Note that when the conjunction and is used, the verb is plural. That is because with and, the subjects are looked at as equals, and become compound. So, the verb must be plural. NOTE: There are some exceptions to this. Some compound subjects are looked upon as a single unit. For example: spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly.
What do you do if you have a sentence that contains a singular and a plural subject? Deciding whether to use a singular or plural verb may seem tricky, but the solution is quite simple. Whichever subject is mentioned last in the sentence, whether singular or plural, determines the correct verb to use:
- Is it the cats or the dog that is making such a commotion?
- Is it the dog or the cats that are making such a commotion?
Words such as anybody, someone, most, and none are very general when referring to people, places, or things. They are called indefinite pronouns. With only a handful of exceptions, it is pretty simple to tell whether most indefinite pronouns are singular or plural.
Like any other pronoun, a singular indefinite pronoun takes a singular verb, and a plural one takes a plural verb. Some indefinite pronouns can be both, so the noun that the indefinite pronoun refers to determines the appropriate verb.
- Most of the glasses are broken.
- Most of the glass is broken.
An exercise for this concept can be found at Subject Verb Agreement Practice Exercise.
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