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Subject-Verb Agreement

When people agree about something—a movie to see, what to have for dinner, what constitutes a good book, who to elect for president—they are in accord, or in "sync," on some level anyway. Conversely, when people do not agree, the individuals become aware of being at odds with others. In a sentence, the subjects of the sentence must agree with the verb in the sentence in both number (singular with singular; plural with plural, etc.) and in person (gender). Without this agreement, the reader gets conflicting messages, and stumbles over the text rather than gleaning your message. In this module we will cover the basic and the not so basic rules for creating sound subject-verb agreement.

Objectives:

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • write both simple and complex sentences showing agreement between subject and verbs
  • proofread to find and correct errors in subject-verb agreement

Agreement with Singular and Plural Subjects...

Most of the time, the correct subject/verb combination is easy for writers to figure out; a singular subject takes a singular verb form, and a plural subject takes a plural verb form, as in Kate dances well (not Kate dance well), or I hate okra (not I hates okra), and We enjoy soccer (not We enjoys soccer). However, certain sentence structures can lead to confusion about the actual subject of the sentence and cause a writer to choose an inapropriate verb form for that subject. This module covers these confusing situations, and provides helpful strategies for locating the subject and choosing the appropriate verb form.

 

Agreement When Words Come Between Subject and Verb...

Watch out for modifying phrases that come between subject and verb! And especially be on the lookout for prepositional phrases, as the object of a preposition can easily be confused with the subject of the sentence. Consider the following sentences:

The mountain bike with the red frame and the fat tires is the one I want.

"Mountain bike" is the subject of the sentence, not "the red frame and the fat tires." These items are part of the prepositional phrase that begins with "with."  The phrase is there to tell us more about the mountain bike; it does not make the subject plural.

Another source of trouble is a modifying phrase beginning with together with, along with, in addition to, or as well as:

The new oak tree, along with three bags of planting mix and a box of fertilizer, was delivered to my house this morning.

Because the phrase is non-restrictive (or not necessary to the sentence), it is not part of the subject, and so should not be considered when deciding on the appropriate verb form for the sentence.

 

Agreement When Subjects are Joined by "and," "or," "neither/nor," or "either/or"

In most situations, subjects connected by "and" are going to be plural:

David and Jesus are always late.

Coffee and dessert were served in the living room.

However, if the subjects joined by "and" refer to a single person, item or simultaneous action, the subject is singular:

Spaghetti and meatballs is the only thing Mary ever orders when we go out to eat.

Rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time is almost impossible to do.

My best friend and confidante is always there for me when I need her.

Subjects joined by or or by either/or or neither/nor may take singular or plural verbs depending on the form of the subject.  If both subjects are plural, the verb will be plural; if both subjects are singular, the verb will be singular.  If one subject is singular and the other is plural, the verb agrees with subject it is closest to, even if sometimes this structure feels counter-intuitive.

An apple or a banana is a good afterschool snack.

Neither the teacher nor the students know how to solve this math problem.

 

Agreement With Indefinite Pronouns...

Indefinite pronouns cause a lot of confusion. Some indefinite pronouns, such as all, any, none, most, and some, are confusing because they can be singular or plural depending on the nouns to which they refer;

Some of us are going skiing this weekend.

Some of the cake is still on the table.

In the first example, "some" refers to individual persons, and so the verb is plural; in the second example "some" refers to an "uncountable" noun, "cake," and therefore, the verb is singular. To determine the number for a verb used with these indefinite pronouns, check to see if the noun is "countable" (made of up of individual elements that can be counted), or "uncountable" (not countable by individual elements).

Some indefinite pronouns are always singular:  for example, anyone, anybody, anything, each, everyone, everybody, everything, nobody, nothing, somebody, someone, and something.

Each of the new interns is assigned to work a twenty-four hour shift this week.

Something is happening, but you don't know what it is.

Everything is going wrong today.

Some indefinite pronuns are always plural: for example, both, few, several, and many.

Some sit around and wait for happiness; many go out and find it.

Dorleen and Claire joined the volleyball team this semester, and both are going to be starting players.

 

Agreement With Collective Nouns as Subjects...

Usually, collective nouns will take a singular verb unless the writer wants to emphasize the individuals in a group:

The group stands firm on this issue.

At a Rolling Stones concert the crowd always sings along to "Satisfaction."

The crew hope their grog won't run out before they reach port.

Generally, it is better to name a plural subject rather than use a collective noun as a plural. Collective nouns used with a plural form of a verb tend to sound a bit awkward, as in the example above; "the crew members hope..." sounds a bit better.

 

Agreement With "Which" "Who" and "That" as Subjects...

When the relative pronouns "which," "who," and "that" are used in an adjective clause (relative clause), the verb in the clause should agree in number with the subject of the sentence (the antecedent for the pronoun). 

Trees that drop fruit will attract bugs, birds, squirrels and other small animals.

The antecedent for the pronoun "that" is "trees," so the verb in the adjective clause "that drop fruit" should be plural.

Dr. No is just one of the villains who have come up against James Bond.

In this sentence, the antecedent for the pronoun "who" in the adjective phrase "who have come against James Bond," is "villains," and so the verb in the phrase should be plural. 

Oddjob is the only one of the villains who throws a razor-edged hat as a weapon.

In this sentence, however, the antecedent is "one" (the phrase modifies "one" rather than "villains"), and so the verb is singular.

 

Agreement When Subject-Verb Order is Inverted...

Most of the time the subject comes before the verb, but occasionally, word order is inverted and the subject is delayed. When word order is inverted, it is easy to confuse a noun in an opening phrase with the true subject of the sentence. One signal of a delayed subject is the expletive "there" at the beginning of a sentence:

When your parents get home, there is going to be trouble over the broken vase.  

If Jenny and Mark won't listen, there is little I can do to help them.

Word order is also inverted in questions. Often the subject appears between parts of a verb phrase, as in "Has she arrived yet?" The subject must match the first auxilliary verb (first verb form) in number.

How many rides have you been on at Disneyland today?

Are there going to be many people at the party tonight?

 

Agreement When the Words are a Title...

When a title of a book, film, building, institution, or work of art is the subject of a sentence, it should be treated as a singular subject, even when there is a plural subject in the title:

The Twin Towers was an important New York City landmark.

Terms of Endearment is a sad film.

In addition, when a phrase is referred to in terms of the language itself, the phrase should be treated as singular subject:

"Slowly I turned" is the key phrase in a famous vaudeville routine popularized by comedians Abbot and Costello.

 

Agreement When the Verb is a Linking Verb...

When linking two nouns with a linking verb, the number of the verb should correspond to the number of the subject and not the predicate nominative.

Her dogs are her protection.

Her protection is her dogs.

 

 

Objectives

1. agreement with singular and plural subjects

2. when words come between subject and verb

3. when subjects are joined by and, or, neither/nor or either/or

4. with indefinite pronouns

5. with collective nouns as subjects

6. with which, who, and that as subjects

7. when subject-verb order is inverted

8. when the words are a title

9. when the verb is a linking verb

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