How To Get Subjects To Agree With Verbs

No one wants a grammar argument, so if your subjects and verbs are fighting, you have a problem on your hands.

What is subject-verb agreement?

Subject-verb agreement refers to having the subject and the verb in a sentence match, both being either singular or plural.

First, the basics: the subject of a sentence refers to the one performing the action or being in the state expressed by the verb. The subject can be a simple noun (the dog), noun phrase (all the people), or noun substitute (like a pronoun, she). The verb is the word or phrase that expresses action (or states some kind of relationship between two things, even we want to get more grammatical): run, is, enchant.

If the subject of a sentence is singular, the verb should also be singular. If the subject is plural, the verb should be, as well. Changing the verb to reflect the subject can be referred to as conjugation, which is the inflection of a verbs. Inflections, broadly speaking, are changes in the form of a word that change its meaning, as –ed shows the past tense of talk.

For example, in the sentence The dog runs fast, the singular subject dog needs to have a singular verb, runs. If you were talking about many dogs, the sentence would read The dogs run fast, with the plural verb run.

Multiple subjects connected by and

Use a plural verb when two or more subjects are connected by the conjunctions and. This is true when you’re using:

  • Two singular subjects (Jim and Pam went to the park)
  • Two plural subjects (the girls and boys went to the park)
  • A singular and a plural subject (Jim and the girls went to the park)
  • Multiple subjects (Jim, Pam, and Sue went to the park)

Multiple subjects connected by or or nor

When two singular subjects are connected by the conjunctions or or nor, you should use a singular verb, as in this sentence: Neither my mother nor father is here.

When a sentence includes both a singular and a plural subject connected by or or nor, the you should match the verb to the noun closest to it. For example: Either Sheila or her daughters are going to the game. Here we use the plural verb are because the plural subject daughters is closest to the verb.

In this next example, however, the singular subject brother is closest to the verb, so the singular verb plays is used: Neither the girls nor their brother plays baseball.

Collective nouns

When you’re using a collective noun (like staff, family, or group) that’s acting as a single unit, you generally use (in American English) a singular verb. Here’s an example: The family belongs to that library. The family is acting as a unit, so it takes the singular verb belongs.

On the other hand, when you use a collective noun to refer to several individuals in a group, you generally use a plural verb. An example of this can be seen in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this Middle Western city for three generations.” This sentence uses family to refer to the individual members of the family, so the plural verb phrase have been is called for.

When you’re trying to determine the correct verb to use, it’s important to identify the subject in your sentence (ignore all the other nouns). If you still have trouble, try substituting the subject with a pronoun, such as he instead of the boy, they in place of the girls, or it instead of the book.

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