Subject-Verb Agreement

In English, as in most European languages, the form of a verb must agree in terms of number with the subject. That is to say, if the subject is singular, the verb must be in singular form and if the subject is plural, the verb be in plural form. All of you, ESL learners, probably know about this—in theory—already. However, there are some cases where complications might arise. Here are some guidelines for you.

1. Identify the subject

In order to choose the correct verb form, you need to be able to identify the subject, and match it with the verb. Sometimes it might be hard to identify the subject because there are other nouns before the verb in question. Here are some examples:

In these examples, the true subjects, with which the verbs must agree, are "discrepancies" "use", and "man hunt" (all in bold). The subject in 1.1 is plural, and so the verb must be plural as well ("are"); the subject in 1.2 is singular, and the verb is also singular ("is"); finally, the subject is singular in 1.3, thus requiring a singular verb ("has").

Remember that the subject is always before a prepositional phrase, which modifies the subject (here, "between the group who supports . . .", "for an escaped . . .", and "of outside sources and references . . ." modify "discrepancies," "man hunt," and "use," respectively).

2. With indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns require singular verbs although their meanings are undoubtedly plural. These pronouns begin with "every-", "no-", and "any," followed by "one," "body," or "thing" (i.e., everyone, everything, everybody, nothing, nobody, no one, etc). Included in this group are pronouns such as "each" and "every." Here are some examples:

In all of these examples, verbs are in their singular forms. Notice that in 2.1 and 2.2, the subjects are, respectively, "student" and "teacher" (do not forget that nouns in front of prepositions are the real subjects).

3. With pronouns that can take both singular and plural

With "some," "any," "none," "all," and "most," the verb can be either singular or plural, depending on the noun following it, as in:

So, whenever you see these pronouns, you have to look at the noun following them; if the noun is singular (as in examples 3.2), the verb must be singular. However, if the noun following is plural (as in 3.1 and 3.3), the verb must be plural.

4. With a compound noun

When you have two nouns joined together (by "and"), you need a plural verb, except when they are joined by "either…or" or "neither…nor," in which case they require the verb to match the noun following "or" or "nor." Here are examples:

In examples 4.4 and 4.5, you must not forget to look at the last noun (i.e. after "or" and "nor") and choose the verb form in accordance with that noun. This is because of "neither…nor" and "either…or." In the rest of the examples, though, you have to use a plural verb form when subjects are joined by "and."

However, when two nouns are joined by "including," "accompanied by," "together with," "in addition to," or "as well," the verb agrees with the first noun, as in:

In 4.6, the subject with which the verb has to agree is "the pencils" (not "their case"), because these two nouns are joined by "together with." The same goes for 4.7 and 4.8 as well, in which case the verbs agree with the noun "the meal" and "the chairman," because the two nouns are joined by "as well as" and "accompanied by." Compare example 4.8. with 4.9, and you'll see that although 4.9 has the same elements as 4.8, the verb has to be plural because in 4.8 the two nouns are joined by "and."

5. Time and Money

A sum of money and an amount of time require singular verbs because they are thought of as one unit, as in:

With noncountable nouns

Some nouns with -s endings require a singular verb because they are names of diseases, fields of study, or uncountable nouns, as in:

In all of these examples, singular verbs are required because these nouns, although ending in -s, are diseases (mumps, measles, etc), uncountable nouns (news), or subjects of study (mathematics, physics, etc).

On the other hand, some nouns with -s are always plural, for example, "scissors," "trousers," "pants," "shoes," "jeans," etc. These nouns require plural verbs because they are plural in the real word. Think about "scissors" or "pants"; they have two symmetrical parts, and neither of these parts can be missing in order for them to function properly. These nouns, thus, require plural verbs.

Identify the real subject of the sentence

Finally, always remember that the verb always agrees with the subject, not other parts of a sentence, as in:

In 7.1, the subject is "topic," and thus it is singular, while in 7.2, the subject is "prose and poetry," and thus it is plural. It does not matter whether what follows, for example, "is" in 7.1 is plural. The verb form is always determined by the subject.

After this section, you should have more confidence in choosing the correct verb form. What you need to be careful about is identifying the right subject. Unless you are able to find the subject, you won't be able to match correct form of the verb.

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