How To Achieve Subject-Verb Agreement

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Wait a second. Did something seem off about those first three sentences? All three of these sentences committed a major grammar mistake that makes them sound just plain wrong—because they are! These sentences are examples of errors in subject-verb agreement. Even if you consider yourself a grammar expert, you may need a few tips about making sure your subjects and verbs are always working together.

What is subject-verb agreement?

When we write or say sentences, we must include two very important things: the subject and the predicate. Generally speaking, the subject of a sentence (or clause) tells us who or what is doing something. The predicate tells us what they did or what is happening to them. A predicate must always have a verb, a word that we use to refer to actions or states of being.

In a grammatically correct sentence (or clause), there must always be subject-verb agreement. Usually, this means that singular subjects use singular verbs and plural subjects use plural verbs. You can see this in action in the following two sentences:

 

  • His cat sleeps on the sofa. (singular subject, singular verb)
  • My cats sleep on the floor. (plural subject, plural verb)

What are plural verbs?

In general, if more than one person or thing is performing an action or experiencing a state of being, we say that the verb used to describe that action or state is plural. For example, the sentence Birds fly uses the plural verb fly to describe an action that more than one bird is doing.

What are singular verbs?

On the other hand, if only one person or thing is performing an action or experiencing a state of being, we generally say that the verb used to describe that action or state is singular. For example, the sentence My sister works at a circus uses the singular verb works to describe the action that only one sister performs.

When to use singular vs. plural verbs to achieve subject-verb agreement

Sometimes, you don’t have to worry about which kind of verb to use to achieve subject-verb agreement. For example, almost all verbs in the simple past tense are identical when used as a singular or plural as in The monkey ate a banana or The monkeys ate bananas. However, subject-verb agreement should be at the front of your mind when using verbs in the present tenses or using the verb be at all. Let’s look closer at singular and plural verbs so we can explore how tricky subject-verb agreement can be.

When to use singular verbs

First, we will learn when it is best to use singular verbs in a sentence or clause.

When a singular subject takes a singular verb

To begin, the general rule is that a singular subject takes a singular verb. In order to achieve subject-verb agreement, the verb must have the correct conjugation so that it matches the subject. To do this, present tense singular verbs typically use the root form of the verb, except when the subject is in the third person. Present tense singular verbs add an -s or -es when used with a third person singular subject, as in She likes romantic comedies.

The following sentences show examples of correct conjugation:

 

  • I exercise every day. (first person)
  • You always know the answers. (second person)
  • He speaks three languages. (third person)

There are two common exceptions to this rule:

1. The verb have becomes has when used with a third person singular subject in the simple present tense.

2. The verb be becomes am when used with a first person singular subject in the present tense and becomes is when used with a third person singular subject in the present tense. In the simple past tense, the verb be becomes was as a singular verb except when used with the pronoun you, in which case it becomes were.

The following sentences show correctly conjugated examples of have and be:

 

  • I am calm.
  • You are my friend.
  • She is happy.
  • I have two cars.
  • My dog has fleas.

Of course, when it comes to learning subject-verb agreement, that’s not all you need to know! English grammar being what it is, you’ll also need help navigating a lot of tricky situations relating to agreement. Below are some of the most common queries about singular verbs.

Singular subjects connected by either/or or neither/nor

If two singular subjects are connected by either/or or neither/nor, we use a singular verb:

 

  • Based on the evidence, either the butler or the maid is guilty.
  • Neither Zach nor Cody works at the hotel.

Collective nouns

When using a collective noun, we use a singular verb if every member of the group is acting together:

 

  • The army was practicing maneuvers.
  • This stack of papers looks really heavy.
  • The herd of cows is grazing in the pasture

We’ve gathered more information about collective nouns for you to review right here!

Singular subjects separated from the verb by along with, as well as, besides, or not

Sometimes, a singular subject is separated from the verb by other words that may, for example, introduce prepositional phrases or dependent clauses. In general, you can ignore these and make sure the verb agrees with the actual subject:

 

  • The king, along with his many siblings, is attending the ceremony.
  • My cousin, as well as her cats, lives next door.
  • Hang gliding, besides the occasional stray bird, is a fun activity.
  • Jeremy, not his brother, teaches kindergarten.
  • The movie, as well as all of its sequels, is amazing.

Distances or periods of time considered as a unit

We use a singular verb if a distance or length of time is being treated as one single unit:

 

  • One hundred miles is much too far to drive to go to the store.
  • Ninety minutes sounds like a reasonable runtime for a movie.

When using each, each one, neither, everyone, everybody, nobody, somebody, someone, and no one

All of the words above are treated as singular subjects and use singular verbs:

 

  • Someone was hanging around the bank yesterday.
  • No one is in the house.
  • Everyone gets a free lunch at the meeting.

Nouns such as athleticscivicsmathematics, measles, and news

Some nouns, like those listed above, appear to be plural but are treated as a singular subject.

 

  • Measles is a common disease.
  • Mathematics is my least favorite subject.
  • Judging from his face, the news was pretty bad.

Using with, including, and accompanied by

Sometimes, a singular subject is modified by a phrase that begins with one of these words or phrases. Don’t be fooled by modifying phrases and always make sure you recognize the subject and use the correct verb:

 

  • The man with the freckles is my dad.
  • The girl accompanied by 17 bodyguards was the princess.
  • This album, including several bonus tracks, is a limited release.

When to use plural verbs

Now that we’ve looked at singular verbs, let’s figure out when we typically use plural verbs.

When a plural subject takes a plural verb

As was the case with singular subjects, the general rule is that a plural subject takes a plural verb. Just as we did before, we have to make sure a verb has proper conjugation so that we have subject-verb agreement. Generally speaking, verbs use their root form when used as a plural in the present tense. The major exception to this is the verb be. In the present tense, the plural of be is are. In the past tense, the plural of be is were.

Here are examples of sentences where plural subjects take plural verbs. Note that the verb be is properly conjugated:

 

  • They teach yoga at the civic center.
  • Bears hibernate during the winter.
  • My friends are late.
  • The paintings were too big for my living room wall.

Below are some more common queries when it comes to the use of plural verbs.

Multiple subjects connected by and

In general, we use a plural verb when multiple subjects are connected with the conjunction and. For instance:

 

  • Matt and Tiffany are my best friends.
  • In my opinion, Chinese and Japanese were the hardest languages for me to learn.
  • The lion, scarecrow, and tin man walk down the road with Dorothy.

However, be careful of singular compound nouns that use the word and:

 

  • Macaroni and cheese is my favorite food.
  • Hide-and-seek is a fun game.

Wishes or hypotheticals

When we use a verb in the subjunctive mood, we typically use plural verbs even with singular subjects. The subjunctive mood is used to express wishes, hypothetical situations, or fictional realities:

 

  • If the Tooth Fairy were real, she would have a lot of explaining to do.
  • Act as if Amanda were here right now.
  • I really wish he would speak his mind.

If you wish you had a better grasp of the how to use the verb wish, we have you covered. Learn whether it’s wish I were or wish I was.

Nouns such as scissors, trousers, pants, shears, and glasses

Some nouns, like those listed above, are treated as plural nouns even though they appear to refer to a single object:

 

  • These scissors are very sharp.
  • My pants were covered in mud.
  • Her glasses help her see things clearly.

When it could be either a singular or plural verb

Sometimes, things can get a little tricky. When deciding on what verb you need to use to ensure subject-verb agreement, keep the following situations in mind.

When sentences begin with here or there

Note: the subject follows the verb.

Be careful of sentences that begin with here or there. Usually, these words are NOT the subject of the sentence and instead the subject follows the verb. If this is the case, conjugate the verb as normal so that it agrees with the subject:

 

  • Here is my hat.
  • Here are those stamps I was looking for.
  • There is a humongous bat on the roof.
  • There are three different kinds of vegetables in the soup.

With words that indicate a portion (a lot, a majority, some, all, etc.)

Note: plural vs. singular is guided by the noun after the word of.

In an exception to the usual rule of prepositions, the noun that follows the word of will help you figure out if you should use a singular or plural verb with a portion word. For example,

 

  • A lot of my friends hate country music.
  • All of my heart belongs to you.
  • Some of the island is underwater.
  • Some of the islands are really big.

When using doesn’t vs. don’t

Doesn’t and don’t are contractions that use the verb do as follows:

 

  • I do → I don’t
  • You do → You don’t
  • He/she/it does → He/she/it doesn’t
  • We do → we don’t
  • They do → They don’t

As you can see, the first and second singular pronouns I and you are the only singular subjects that use don’t. For instance,

 

  • Theresa doesn’t have any pets.
  • We don’t go to the mall on weekends.
  • Max really likes seafood, but I don’t.
  • You don’t have to listen to him if you don’t want to.

When discussing money

Note: The amount of dollars is singular. Dollars themselves are plural.

An amount of money is treated as a singular subject.

 

  • $500 is too much money for this old television.
  • 10,000 Japanese Yen is equal to about 92 US dollars.

When the word dollars is referring to paper money rather than a sum of money, it uses a plural verb:

 

  • Fifty dollars is a good tip if you ask me.
  • Canadian dollars are worth less than American dollars. (Here, dollars is referring to the actual dollar bills used in both countries.)

We think you’ll agree: you need Grammar Coach!

Check your writing for errors, including subject-verb agreement, with Thesaurus.com’s Grammar Coach™. Powered by machine learning, Grammar Coach™ not only catches grammar and spelling errors, but it also provides Thesaurus-powered synonym suggestions. This writing tool can spot the difference between the different verb tenses, their correct and incorrect uses—and much more!

What about verb tenses? Think you can identify all of them correctly?