Subject-Verb Agreement

Subject-Verb Agreement

Here are some things that you should already know.
1. Point of view. First person point of view uses I, me, my, myself, we, our, and us.  Second person point of view uses you, your, yourself.  Third person point of view uses he, she, him, her, they, them, who, whom,

2. Prepositions and prepositional phrases.  These little words add detail to writing.  The most common prepositions are of, in, on, at, over, between, and beyond.  A prepositional phrase comprises a preposition followed by a noun or pronoun.  An article, such as a, an, or the, can precede the noun or pronoun; for example, of the students is a prepositional phrase where of is the preposition, the is the article, and students is the noun that ends the prepositional phrase.  In addition, there can also be adjectives before the noun or pronoun, such as, of the enthusiastic and hard-working students where enthusiastic and hard-working are our adjectives modifying the noun students.

3. Singular and Plural.  In writing, we have two modes: singular and plural.  From -1 to 1 is singular: this includes zero.  Everything else is plural, meaning two or more.

4. Verbs have various forms of tense, such as past tense, present tense, and future tense,  Subject-verb agreement of action verbs only counts in present tense.  State-of-being verbs require subject-verb agreement on all tenses.  State-of-being verbs include is, are, was, were, have, has, and had.

Subject-verb agreement is one of the first topics students learn when it comes to grammar.  It’s really not that hard.  Mostly, what sounds correct is correct, meaning that it doesn’t sound strange.  Since there are a lot of grammar rules, I have a simple classification method to help me.   First, what sounds correct is correct.  This rule refers to what I would say when I talk.  Second, what sounds correct is wrong.  This rule refers to the grammar we use that is not correct, but we still do it because it sounds correct.  There are some good reasons why the wrong grammar can sound correct, and we will discuss that later.

What is subject-verb agreement?

Subject-verb means that you have to use singular verbs with singular subjects, and plural verbs with plural subjects.  Therefore, the first thing you want to do is figure out if your subject is singular or plural.  Then you want to apply the correct verb at the correct time.

Let’s look at some subjects in present tense.

First-person subjects use the same action verb, whether plural or singular.

  • I run to the store.
  • We run to the store.

However, you use different state-of-being verbs depending on whether the subject is singular or plural.

  • I am happy. “Am” is the singular verb in this case.
  • We are happy. “Are” is the plural verb in this case.

Second-person subjects use the same action and state-of-being verb because second-person is always plural.

  • You run to the store.
  • You are happy.

Third-person subjects use different action verbs but only in present tense.  If you move to past tense by adding an -ed ending, then you don’t have to deal with it, and most writing is about the past so we use a lot more past tense than present tense when writing.  We use a lot of present tense in our speech.

State-of-being verbs.  The singular state-of-being verbs are is, was, has, had.  The plural state-of-being verbs are are, were, have, had.  You will notice that had is both singular and plural.

Jeff is fast.  Jeff is the singular subject.  Is is the singular verb.
They are fast.  They is the plural subject.  Are is the plural verb.
Jeff was fast.  Jeff is the singular subject. Was is the past-tense singular verb.
They were fast.  They is the plural subject.  Were is the past-tense plural verb.
Jeff has some speed. Jeff is the singular subject. Has is the past-tense singular verb.
They have some speed. They is the plural subject.  Have is the past-tense plural verb.

Singular action verbs have an “s” on the end and plural action verbs don’t.

Jeff runs fast.  Jeff is the singular subject.  Runs is the singular verbs.
They run fast.  They is the plural subject.  Run is the plural verb.

Next we’re going to look at the most common subject verb agreement mistake.  Here we have two sentences.  Which one do you think is correct?

None of the students was happy with their grade.
None of the students were happy with their grade.

The key is to remove the prepositional phrase in your mind so that the subject is clear to you.

None of the students was happy with their grade.
None of the students were happy with their grade.

The problem is that the prepositional phrase “of the students” sits in between the subject, which is “none” and the verb.  In the prepositional phrase “of the students,” “students” is referred to as the object of the preposition, so it can never be the subject of the sentence.  Here, it’s providing the context for the subject, “none.” It’s clarifying the number of students who are happy, which is “none.” “None” is zero, and zero is singular.

Here is an example from the New York Times Copy, Edit, This Quiz.

The patchwork of laws governing background checks, assault-weapons limits and open-carry practices help explain why people continue to be wounded and killed.

If we remove the very long prepositional phrase, we can clearly see the subject, which is the singular patchwork.  This means that the verb help should be helps.

The patchwork of laws governing background checks, assault-weapons limits and open-carry practices helps explain why people continue to be wounded and killed.

It may not sound correct because the plural word “practices” is right next to the verb, and it sounds strange to say “practices helps” together.

The next subject verb agreement issue is the use of compound subjects.  This happens when there are two or more subjects as in “Jeff, Sarah, and Noelle are happy to help with the dinner.”  The subjects are Jeff, Sarah, and Noelle.  Three subjects are plural and that is why I used “are” as the verb. Think of it as a math problem.  One and one are two, which is plural.

These can sound incorrect at times because each individual subject is singular, so you can end up with a singular sounding subject right next to a plural verb.  And, sometimes these can sound strange because in speech, I and most others tend to use the pronoun “we” instead of everyone’s names.

Next up, compound subjects connect with an “or” or “nor.”  These are relatively easy.  The subject closest to the verb decides.  In the sentence, “Neither the pastor nor the congregants were happy with the lock-down,” the congregants are closest to the very so it decides and that is why the verb “were” is used here.  If you’re having trouble with these, just get rid of the other subject and read the sentence.  If it sounds right, it probably is right.

Now we have pronouns.  The most difficult of which are indefinite pronouns.  We call them indefinite pronouns because specific number of people involved in unknown.  Some of these are plural and some are singular.  Generally speaking we use these properly because we use indefinite pronouns in speech quite often.

We say, “Everyone is happy.”  Everyone is the indefinite pronoun and is singular.  To test these, simply replace everyone with one of the others.  Does it sound right?

Many is happy?  No.

Each one is happy?  Yes.

Singular and plural indefinite pronouns are as follows:

Singular Plural
Each one
No one








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