Subject-Verb Agreement, Part 2

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A common grammar/usage error is faulty subject-verb agreement.  This and the previous lesson offer some guidelines for avoiding this problem.

Review of Last Lesson

Verbs must agree with their subjects. That means if the subject is singular, the verb must also be singular. Singular, present-tense verbs always end in s. This can be confusing, because adding an s to a noun usually  makes it plural. But your instincts are already trained this way. That’s why it sounds correct to say “the boy runs” or “the boys run,”  and it would sound wrong to say “the boys runs.”

We don’t seem to have trouble with subject-verb agreement when the sentence is simple and the subject of the verb is obvious:

  • The girl laughs at the clever clown.
  • They often go to the movies.
  • The cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney.

There are two sentence types that make subject-verb agreement tricky:

  • When I or you is the subject
  • Inverted sentences (when the verb comes before the subject)

Now let’s look at three more sentence types that cause problems with subject-verb agreement:

 When words come between the subject and the verb

The rule doesn’t change when this happens, it just makes finding the subject a little trickier. Sometimes a series of clauses and/or phrases can separate the verb from its subject. Be sure you can identify the subject to avoid any errors here.

In the following example, notice the distance between the subject (companions) and the verb (emerge).

My favorite companions, including William Evans, whose smile and quick wit make him a favorite wherever he goes, and Eddie Burton, who is shy in public, but gregarious and clever when among friends, suddenly emerge from the limousine.

In sentences like this, by the time you get to the verb, it can be hard to remember what subject you started with. Be sure your verb agrees with the correct word.

In particular, watch out for prepositional phrases beginning with of. These tend to cause problems because the object of the preposition can appear to be the subject, as in the sentence below.

One of the doctors has called.

In this sentence, if you asked, “Who has called?” you might be tempted to answer “doctors.” But that would be incorrect. The sentence actually says that one called. Of the doctors is a prepositional phrase that modifies one. Therefore, the subject of the verb has called is one, which is singular. That’s why the correct verb is singular: has called. (If doctors were the subject, the verb would have to be plural: have called.)

A simple rule that can help you here is this: The subject of a verb can never be part of a prepositional phrase. Below are two examples where it might be easy to confuse the object of the preposition (in blue) with the actual subject (underlined). Notice that the verbs agree with the underlined subject, not the noun in the prepositional phrase (in parentheses).

  • The captain [of the cheerleaders] is Gretchen.
  • The members [of the organization] are planning a parade.

Don’t be confused by sentences with phrases and/or clauses between the subject and the verb. Be sure you correctly identify the subject and make the verb agree with it.

 When the sentence has a compound subject

What happens if there are two nouns or pronouns that function as the subject of the same verb? We call this a compound subject. Here are two examples:

  • My friends and I are going camping.
  • Either Edna or her sisters are joining us for a picnic.

The rules governing subject-verb agreement with a compound subject always depend on the word that combines the parts of the subject. The conjunctions that can do this are and, or and nor. Here are the rules for a verb with a compound subject:

When the word “and” combines the parts of the subject, the verb is always plural, and requires a plural verb.

Examples:  

  • My friends and I are going camping
  • Steve and Chuck drive to work together.

When the word “or” or “nor” combines the parts of the subject, the verb should agree with the subject part that is nearest to it.

Examples:

  • Either Edna or her  sisters  are joining us for a picnic.
  • Neither the musicians nor the conductor  is ready for the performance.

When and combines the parts of the subject, think of it as a plus sign. One subject plus another gives you more than one subject; therefore, the subject is plural. It’s a bit trickier when or or nor is used, but it normally feels natural to make the verb agree with the subject part that is closest.

 When the subject is an indefinite pronoun

Indefinite pronouns are often hard to identify as singular or plural. Many of them seem to be plural but are actually singular. That’s why it is correct to say Everybody loves pizza, instead of Everybody love pizza.

The only way to avoid errors with indefinite pronoun subjects is to learn which of them are singular and which are plural. This chart will help:

Pronouns that Are Always Singular

Pronouns that Are Always Plural

another, anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, no one, nothing, one, somebody, someone, something both, few, many, several
Examples:Everybody likes ice cream!One does not put elbows on the table.Each receives an allowance. Examples:Both come with instructions.Many are poorly fed.

Notice that all the indefinite pronouns that end in –body–one, or –thing are always singular, and that only a handful are always plural. Keep this in mind to avoid making agreement errors.

If all indefinite pronouns fit into the “always singular” and “always plural” categories, this would be simple. Unfortunately, some indefinite pronouns are in between. They can be either singular or plural, depending on how they are used in a sentence. The following chart lists the indefinite pronouns in this either/or category:

Pronouns That Are Sometimes Singular

And Sometimes Plural

all        any        more        most        none        some

Examples:

  • All of the money is locked up.
  • All of my friends are trustworthy
  • None of the water is drinkable.
  • None of the players are eligible.

With these pronouns, the trick is to look at the prepositional phrase that comes after it.  If the object of the preposition of is singular, the verb will be singular (like money and water above). If the object of the preposition is plural (like friends and players), the verb will be plural.

This concludes our look at subject-verb agreement. As you write, learn to recognize the five kinds of sentences that cause trouble, and double-check every verb to be sure it agrees with its subject.

Think you get the idea? Take the quiz and find out!

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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    tracy03-01-2015

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  4. Christina
    Christina11-29-2012

    Thank you for a great and informative post! This is one I am printing out to keep handy while writing.
    Christina

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko11-29-2012

      That’s great to hear, Christina. Let me know how it prints. I could probably create a printable version of this for download if that would be convenient.

  5. Sharon
    Sharon11-28-2012

    I want to be you when I grow up. 🙂

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko11-29-2012

      Thank you, Sharon. Is it my charm or impressive grasp of grammar that so inspires you? 🙂

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