Thursday, 31 March 2011

Subject-Verb Agreement

Although you are probably already familiar with basic subject-verb agreement, this chapter begins with a quick review of basic agreement rules.

Subjects and verbs must AGREE with one another in number (singular or plural).  Thus, if a subject is singular, its verb must also be singular; if a subject is plural, its verb must also be plural.

In the present tense, nouns and verbs form plurals in opposite ways: nouns ADD an s to the singular form; verbs REMOVE the s from the singular form.

These agreement rules do not apply to verbs used in the simple past tense without any helping verbs.

The agreement rules do, however, apply to the following helping verbs when they are used with a main verb: is-arewas-werehas-havedoes-do.

The agreement rules do not apply to has-have when used as the SECOND helping verb in a pair. 
They do NOT apply to any other helping verbs, such as can, could, shall, should, may, might, will, would, must.
The subject-verb agreement rules apply to all personal pronouns except I and you, which, although SINGULAR, require PLURAL forms of verbs

Compound Subject

The word “compound” means “made up of two or more parts.”  Two or more words can be compounded or linked by joining them with any of three words:
                                               andor, and nor

Here are some examples of compounding:

Compound nouns can function as a “compound subject.”  In some instances, a compound subject poses special problems for the subject-verb agreement rule (+s, -s).

However, instead of using two sentences (as above), we may choose to give the above information in one sentence.

This sentence makes use of a compound subject (two subject nouns joined by and), illustrating a new rule about subject-verb agreement.

Although each part of the compound subject is singular (ranger and camper), taken together (joined by and), each one becomes a part of a plural structure and, therefore, must take a pluralverb (see) to agree in the sentence.


Two or more singular (or plural) subjects joined by and act as a plural compound subject and take a plural verb (singular + singular = plural).

You can check the verb by substituting the pronoun they for the compound subject.

Or and nor as joiners word somewhat differently from and.  While the word and seems to ADD things together, or and nor do not.  They suggest a CHOICE.

Look at this sentence.

This sentence makes use of a compound subject (two subject nouns joined together by or).  

Each part of the compound subject (ranger, camper) is singular.  Even though both words function together as subject (joined by or), the subject still remains SINGULAR (ranger or camper) since a CHOICE is implied.

This compound subject, therefore, requires a singular verb to agree with it.


Two or more SINGULAR subjects joined by or (or nor) act as a singular compound subject and, therefore, take a singular verb to agree.

Note:  Two or more plural subjects joined by or (or nor) would naturally take a plural verb to agree.

However, or and nor can pose a more difficult problem.

Thus far we have been working with compound subjects whose individual parts are both either singular or plural

What if one part of the compound subject is singular and the other part is plural?

What form of a verb should be used in this case?  Should the verb be singular to agree with one word?  Or should the verb be plural to agree with the other?

1.      If the individual parts of the compound subject are joined by and, always use a plural verb.

2.      If the individual parts of the compound subject are joined by or or nor, use the verb form (singular or plural) which will agree with the subject closer to the verb.

Some nouns which name groups can be either singular or plural depending upon their meaning in individual sentences.

Because they can describe either the individuals in the group (more than one – plural), or the group as a single entity (one only – singular), these nouns pose special problems.

However, there are some guidelines for deciding which verb form (singular or plural) to use with one of these nouns as the subject in a sentence.

If we refer to the group as a whole and, therefore, as a single unit, we consider the noun singular.  In this case, we use a singular verb.

If, on the other hand, we are actually referring to the individuals within the group, then we consider the noun plural.  In this case, we use a plural verb.

Of course group nouns, like other nouns, can also appear in plural forms (with an s).

When used in the plural form, group nouns mean MORE THAN ONE GROUP.  Thus, it uses a plural verb.

Thus, there are three important subject – verb agreement rules to remember when a group noun is used as the subject:
  • Group nouns can be considered as a single unit, and, thus, take a singular verb.
  • Group nouns can be considered as individual members within a single unit and, thus, take  a plural verb.
  • Group nouns can be given plural forms to mean two or more units and, thus, take a plural verb.
Plural Form / Singular Meaning Nouns

Some nouns are regularly plural in form, but singular in meaning

Even though these nouns APPEAR to be plural because they end in s, they actually refer to only one thing made up of smaller, uncounted parts.  Therefore, they are considered singular

You can see that substituting that pronoun it instead of they makes more sense here.

Another group of plural form nouns end in –ics.

Similarly, it is a more suitable substitute for any of these words than is they.

These nouns appear to be plural (end in s), but generally refer to only one thing and are, therefore, generally considered singular.

NOTE:  Occasionally, however, the –ics nouns can have a plural meaning:  We can speak about individual parts of these wholes.  In this case, we apply the same rule as applies to group nouns when we consider the individual members within the group (see Section 3.3):  We use a plural verb.

Note the difference in meaning and, therefore, in the verb chosen (singular or plural) between the two uses of the –ics noun, statistics.

Indefinite pronouns can pose special problems in subject – verb agreement.

The difficulty is that some indefinite pronouns sound plural when they are really singular.

As subjects, the following indefinite pronouns ALWAYS take singular verbs.  Look at them closely.

These should be easy to remember.

However, the following indefinite pronouns ALWAYS take plural verbs


A third group of indefinite pronouns takes either a singular or plural verb depending on the pronoun’s meaning in the sentence.  Look at them closely.

So far we have considered subjects that can cause subject-verb agreement confusion: compound subjects, group noun subjects, plural form – singular meaning subjects, and indefinite subjects.

The remainder of this teaching unit examines subject – verb agreement problems that can result from word placement in sentences.  There are four main problems: prepositional phrases,clauses beginning with whothat, or whichsentences beginning with here or there, and questions.

Here is a list of frequently used prepositions:
A prepositional phrase may be placed between the subject and verb.

In the above example, the singular verb is agrees with the singular subject boy.

Sometimes, however, a prepositional phrase inserted between the subject and verb makes agreement more difficult.
Car is the singular subject.  Was is the singular helping verb which agrees with car.  If we aren’t careful, however, we may mistakenly label riders as the subject since it is nearer to the verb thancar is.  If we choose the plural noun, riders, we will incorrectly select the plural verb were.
Solution to the Prepositional Phrase Problem
  • Learn the major prepositions.
  • Be alert for prepositional phrases placed between the subject and verb, and identify the noun in the phrase immediately as the object of a preposition: An object of a preposition can NEVER be a sentence subject.
  •  Locate the true sentence subject and choose a verb which agrees with it.
  • Remember the indefinite pronoun EXCEPTIONS :  
  • SomeAnyNoneAll, and Most.  The number of these subject words IS affected by a prepositional phrase between the subject and verb.
A clause beginning with whothat, or which and coming BETWEEN the subject and verb can cause agreement problems.

Like the prepositional phrase, the who / that / which clause never contains the subject.



1.      Identify who / that / which clauses immediately.


2.  Locate the true sentence subject and choose a verb that agrees with it.
When a sentence begins with there is – there are / here is – here are, the subject and verb are inverted.  After all that you have learned already, you will undoubtedly find this topic a relatively easy one!

The verb in such constructions is obviously is or are.  The subject, however, does not come BEFORE the verb.

Instead, the subject in this kind of sentence comes AFTER the verb, so you must look for it AFTER the verb. 

In this example, because the subject, book, is singular, the verb must also be singular.
If the subject is plural, however, then the verb must be plural.


In this example, because the subject, books, is plural, the verb is also plural.

Remember: In here is – here are / there is – there are constructions, look for the subject 

AFTER the verb and choose a singular (is) or a plural (are) verb to agree with the subject.

And finally, sometimes creating a question will cause the subject to follow the verb as well. 

Here, identify the subject and then choose the verb that agrees with it (singular or plural).


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