What Is Subject-Verb Agreement?

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Introduction to Subject Verb Agreement

Is that is or are? Do I use study or studies? Ever since English grammar came into play, we have heard such questions repeatedly asked. To decide whether a verb we use should be singular or plural is no tall order. All we need to look for is if the subject is singular or plural. Now, declaring a subject as singular or plural is not that easy. Here, we have put together a list of common rules that students must be well-versed with before choosing between a singular or plural verb.

What Is Subject Verb Agreement?

Subject verb agreement is no rocket science. It means the verb in a sentence must agree with its subject in number. To put it simply, a singular subject has a singular verb, and a plural subject has a plural verb.

Examples of Subject Verb Agreement

Stacey stays in when it rains. (The singular subject "Stacey" has a singular verb "stays in".)

Indoor games are not as fun as outdoor games. (The plural subject "indoor games" has a plural verb "are".)

The physics assignment was hard for Chris. (The singular subject "the physics assignment" has a singular verb "was".)

All the milk is used. (The singular subject "all the milk" has a singular verb "is".)

All students have passed the test. (The plural subject "all students" has a plural verb "have".)

Subjects within Noun Phrases

When the subject is part of a noun phrase, don't be distracted by the modifiers that occur between the subject and the verb.

Examples:

The dog that chased our cats was Max. (The subject "dog" is singular; so, regardless of "our cats" which is plural, a singular verb "was" has been used.)

The dogs that chased our cat were Toby and Jack. (The subject "dogs" is plural; so, regardless of "our cat" which is singular, a plural verb "were" has been used.)

Quick Insight: If compound subjects and interrupting phrases were not around, the concept of subject verb agreement wouldn't be this tricky. It's interesting that the complexity that arises with these two (compound subjects and interrupting phrases) has inspired a whole compilation of subject verb agreement rules.

Singular Verbs with Each, Every, and Many a/an

Although constructions with "every", "each", and "many a" refer to multiple people or things, they are followed by singular nouns and singular verbs.

Examples:

Each American city is unique in its own way.

Every gift was precious.

Many a story was told by Grandma.

Plural Verbs with All

The word "all" is followed by a plural noun, so it takes a plural verb. Unlike "every", "all" both refers to multiple things and takes a plural verb.

Examples:

All children were under the age of seven.

Every child was under the age of seven.

All my friends are here.

Every friend of mine is here.

Plural Verbs with a Number of

We use a plural verb with a number of + noun construction. This is because the subject is essentially plural although there is an "a" in it.

Examples:

At the park, there were a number of rides to choose from.

A number of people are queuing up to get tickets.

Singular Verbs with the Number of

We use a singular verb with the number of + noun construction. This is because we are referring to the number (singular) of something and not the thing itself.

Examples:

The number of people who attended the event was 50.

The number of animals endangered by deforestation is on the rise.

As Well as and Along with

If the subject is joined with another noun using expressions such as "together with", "as well as", "along with", and "besides", the verb agrees with the subject. Unlike "and", these expressions don't act as coordinating conjunctions and have no impact on the subject.

Examples:

Happiness, as well as anticipation, were my initial feelings. (incorrect)
Happiness, as well as anticipation, was my initial feeling. (correct)

Pearl, along with her brother, are on their way to the park. (incorrect)
Pearl, along with her brother, is on her way to the park. (correct)

Singular Verbs with Titles

Use singular verbs with titles of books, movies, and other similar works.

Examples:

Rewards and Fairies is a historical fantasy by Rudyard Kipling.

The Birds was a horror drama.

Singular Verbs with Units of Measurement and Time

Use singular verbs with units of measurement and time.

Examples:

24 hours is such a short time.

How many gallons of oil was used?

Compound Subjects

A compound subject occurs when a sentence has more than one subject in it. The subjects are often connected using and, or, or nor. To decide whether to use a singular verb or plural verb after a compound subject, students should learn a few rules.

  • Use plural verbs with compound subjects that include "and".

    Examples:

    Paul and Betty visit their grandmother every week.

    The radio and TV are both interesting.

  • Use singular verbs with compound subjects that include "and" when the combination is treated as singular or the two subjects refer to the same person or thing.

    Examples:

    Meat and potatoes is Dad's favorite meal. (The two subjects "meat and potatoes" are combined with "and", but we use a singular verb because they form a single unit—one meal.)

    Fish and chips is a traditional British food.

    My brother and my best friend has offered to help. (The two subjects "my brother and my best friend" are combined with "and", but we use a singular verb because both the subjects refer to one person—my brother.)

  • Use a singular subject when two singular subjects are combined using "or", "either ... or", or "neither ... nor".

    Examples:

    Benjamin or his friend is going to help.

    Neither Australia nor Antarctica is the largest continent.

  • When a compound subject that uses "or", "either ... or", "neither ... nor", or "not only ... but also" contains a singular and plural subject, the verb agrees with the subject closer to it.

    Examples:

    Renee or Glenda is doing the dishes.

    Neither Aunt Nora nor my cousins are coming. (The plural subject "my cousins" is closer to the verb; so, a plural verb "are" has been used.)

    Neither my cousins nor Aunt Nora is coming. (The singular subject "Aunt Nora" is closer to the verb; so, a singular verb "is" has been used.)

Indefinite Pronouns

When the subject of a sentence is an indefinite pronoun, we use a singular or plural verb based on certain rules.

  • Use singular verbs with singular indefinite pronouns. Examples of singular indefinite pronouns are "nobody", "everybody", "either", and "something".

    Examples:

    Something has gone wrong.

    Nobody agrees with me.

    Either is fine with Gerald.

    Everybody hopes the criminal will be punished.

  • Use plural verbs with plural indefinite pronouns. Examples of plural indefinite pronouns are "many", "few", and "both".

    Examples:

    Many have raised their voice against the new policy.

    Few were aware of the consequences.

    I have two sisters; both are good athletes.

  • Use singular verbs with indefinite pronouns like "all", "most", and "some" if they are used with singular nouns. Use plural verbs if they are used with plural nouns.

    Examples:

    Some of the eggs were rotten.

    There is some cake in the kitchen.

    All the milk was drunk by April.

    All the thieves were caught.

    Most of the story was fun.

    Most of my friends go swimming.

Quick Tip: Your subject verb agreement will most likely have no problem when the subject is close to its verb. However, when the subject and verb are separated from each other by other words or phrases, you are likely to make mistakes.

Expressions Indicating Portions

Use singular verbs with expressions like "a lot of" if they are followed by singular nouns. Use plural verbs if they are followed by plural nouns.

Examples:

A lot of the cake has been wasted.

A lot of cakes have been wasted.

A third of our students are international.

A third of the syllabus is yet to be taught.

Inverted Subjects

Most of the time, the subject comes before the verb. There are, however, instances when the subject comes after the verb. An inverted subject is when the subject comes after the verb.

Examples:

Traveling to Paris was Steven and Jason. (incorrect)
Traveling to Paris were Steven and Jason. (correct)

It can be a little confusing for students to decide which one to use. The simple trick here is to try writing the sentence in its normal order and see how it looks like. The subject here is "Steven and Jason" (a compound subject). So, the sentence should read as follows:

Steven and Jason is traveling to Paris. (incorrect)
Steven and Jason are traveling to Paris. (Correct, but we aren't there yet as we are talking about an inverted sentence.)
Traveling to Paris were Steven and Jason. (correct)

More Examples:

Do anyone know when the results will be declared? (incorrect)
Does anyone know when the results will be declared? (correct)

Here come the train. (incorrect)
Here comes the train. (correct)

Collective Nouns

A collective noun is a name for a group of people or things. Although collective nouns mostly go with singular verbs due to their singular construction, it's not uncommon for them to take plural verbs.

Examples:

  • Use a singular verb when we refer to the members of the group as a unit.

    Examples:

    The jury has decided to exonerate the police officer.

    The board is meeting again this afternoon.

    The team is traveling in a car.

  • Use a plural verb when each member of the group is acting separately.

    Examples:

    The couple are going to eat dinner at two different restaurants.

    The family have asked for individual gifts for everyone.

    On New Year’s Eve, the staff were talking about their New Year resolutions.


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