One of the rules of language that you almost certainly know, even if you’ve never thought about it consciously, is that subjects and verbs must agree with each other in number.
If that sounds a bit complicated or mathematical, here are a couple of very simple examples to show this in action:
- The child plays at the park. (Singular)
- The children play at the park. (Plural)
A singular noun needs a singular verb; a plural noun needs a plural verb.
If you’re a native English speaker, you probably never think about this when you’re writing, but you know the rule, all the same.
For instance, if I showed you these sentences, you’d know instantly that they were wrong – and you’d know how to correct them:
- The child play at the park.
- The children plays at the park.
In these sentences, it’s very clear how to make the subject and verb “agree” – so that they match grammatically.
Sometimes, though, subject-verb agreement isn’t quite so straightforward, and it can trip up even native, fluent English writers.
Here are six key rules to be aware of:
Rule #1: A Clause Between the Subject and Verb Will Not Change the Verb
Let’s say we had a sentence like this:
- The child with no friends plays at the park.
“The child” is still the subject of the sentence, and “plays” is still the verb. Although the clause “with no friends” has the plural noun “friends,” this does not change the verb – because the verb still applies to “child”.
Tip: If you’re struggling with this, read the sentence aloud without the clause between the subject and the verb, and see if it still makes sense.
Rule #2: Use a Plural Verb if Two Singular Subjects are Joined with “And”
Let’s say you have a sentence like this:
- Max and Susan play at the park.
That sentence is correct. Although “Max” is singular and “Susan” is singular, they’re joined together with “and” – making them a compound subject, which is plural.
Rule #3: Inverted Subjects Must Still Agree With the Verb
In English, the normal sentence order is subject – verb – object. Sometimes this is inverted, though, with the verb coming before the subject … and it’s still important that the verb still agrees with the inverted subject.
Here’s an example:
- There is a child on the swings. (Child is singular.)
- There are five children at the park. (Children is plural.)
And here’s another:
- What was Jane telling you? (“Jane” is singular.)
- What were Jane and Susan telling you? (“Jane and Susan” is plural.)
Again, when you’re speaking or writing, you probably don’t have to think about this too hard. If English is your second language, though, or if you’re writing particularly complex sentences, it’s helpful to keep subject-verb agreement in mind.
Rule #4: If Two Or More Subjects Are Joined With “Or”, Use the Closest to the Verb for Agreement
Let’s say you have a sentence like this:
- Either Jack or the children are too loud.
Is “are” the correct verb to use here, even though Jack is singular? Yes, it is, because the closest subject to the verb is “the children”.
Let’s rewrite the sentence:
- Either the children or Jack is too loud.
Here, “is” is correct, because “Jack” is the closest subject to the verb.
In both of these cases, you may feel the sentence reads slightly awkwardly. If so, you might want to rewrite or reconsider the sentence so that the verb can agree with both subjects:
- Either Jack or one of the children is too loud.
Rule #5: Indefinite Pronouns Normally Take Singular Verbs
Most indefinite pronouns, like “everyone” and “nobody”, take singular verbs. For instance:
- Everyone loves chocolate.
- Nobody wants to die young.
Some indefinite pronouns, though, always take the plural form. These include few, many, several, both, all, and some, when used as pronouns.
- All were impressed by what they saw.
Rule #6: Collective Nouns Can be Singular OR Plural
Collective nouns, like “committee” and “audience”, can be singular or plural depending on the context. In writing your sentence, you’ll need to consider whether the group in question is acting as a unit or as a set of individuals.
Here are some examples:
- The committee asks new members to sign Form A1. (Singular subject and verb.)
- The committee were unable to reach a unanimous decision. (Plural subject and verb.)
Some writers prefer to make collective nouns plural by adding extra words, such as “Members of”:
- Members of the committee were unable to reach a unanimous decision.
Look Out For Subject-Verb Agreement When Editing
Even though you may feel that subject-verb agreement comes naturally to you, a key time to watch out for it is during the editing phase of your writing. It’s all too easy to edit half a sentence, perhaps to change a singular subject to a plural one, only to leave the second half unaltered … and hence incorrect.
Here’s an example of where rewriting part of a sentence necessitates changing several different verbs later on in the sentence:
When a writer is stuck, he stares out of the window, rearranges the pencils on his desk, and in short, does anything to avoid writing.
If you wanted to make that sentence more gender inclusive, without using the singular they (which some writers prefer to avoid), you might recast it as:
When writers are stuck, they stare out of the window, rearrange the pencils on their desks, and in short, do anything to avoid writing.
It’s important to make sure you check all the verbs in a long or complex sentence to ensure they all still agree with the subject.
If at any point you find you’re unsure whether your sentence is correct, try reading it aloud: this will often highlight mistakes that are harder to spot on the page. If that doesn’t work for you, consider rewriting the sentence to simplify it – or pop a comment below to see if anyone else can help!
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Original post: Subject-Verb Agreement: Rules and Examples