Subject-Verb Agreement

One common problem we see in essays written by people with English as a second language is subject-verb agreement.  In English, you have to match the tense of your subject and verb—singular subjects take a singular verb, and plural subjects take plural verbs.

This certainly isn’t limited to ESL speakers, however; native users can make mistakes just as easily, especially in more complex sentences.  Sometimes, when the distance between the subject and verb gets long, writers can get confused as to which form of verb to use.  For example, most English writers will get this sentence right:

“This box belongs in the closet”.

The verb (belong) and subject (box) are right next to one another, and for most native speakers, “this box belong” just sounds wrong, even if they’re not sure why, grammatically.  However, throw in some prepositional phrases and modifiers, and you’ll start to see some mistakes:

“This box, which my Grandma used to help collect her knickknacks, ornaments and newspaper clippings, belong(s) in the closet”.

The right verb again is “belongs”—the subject is still box, and that’s still singular.  But sometimes, writers will accidentally match it with “knickknacks” or “ornaments” or “clippings”, all of which are plural.  The longer the gap, the easier it is to make that sort of mistake.

The general rule of thumb is that you want one “s” ending in your subject and verb.  Generally speaking, nouns that end in “s” are plural and verbs that end in “s” are singular in the present tense.  Of course, English has a ton of exceptions to these rules, but remembering the one “s” rule will help clear up a large percentage of subject-verb errors.

Here are some common situations and rules that will help you keep your subject and verb straight:

  • If your subject has multiple nouns connected by “and” (“He and his friend are going to the movies”), then use the plural verb, even if all your subjects are singular—you’re talking about a group together, so it should be plural.
  • If your subject has multiple nouns connected by “or” or “nor” (“He or his friend is in the classroom”), then you use the singular verb; you’re talking about only one of the two nouns in your subject, so it should be singular.
  • If your subject has both a singular and a plural noun in it, the verb should agree with the part of the subject closest to it—so, “John or his friends run” or “His friends or John runs”.
  • “Doesn’t” is singular, and “don’t” is plural; use them appropriately. The exception is with “I” and “you”; in those cases, you use “don’t”, even if you’re talking in the singular.
  • “Each,” “each one”, “either”, “neither”, “everyone”, “anybody”, “anyone”, “nobody”, “somebody”, “someone” and “no one” are all singular—while they all are describing a set of people or things, they’re all talking about a singular case, and should be treated as singular.
  • Be careful of subjects ending in s! “Mathematics” or “news”, for example, are singular.
  • “Scissors”, “tweezers”, “pants” and words like them are plural—there are two parts to each of these things, so it takes the plural. I know, I know, English is terrible.
  • Remember that the subject can sometimes come after the verb, especially in phrases like “There are four lights” or “Where is my pen?”
  • Collective nouns—like “the team” or “the family”—are tricky, and the rules are different in America and Britain. In British English, the verb you use depends on context—when you’re talking about the group as a whole, you use the singular “the team is playing on Sunday”, and when you’re talking about the group as individuals, you use the plural—“the team are fighting among themselves”.  In American English, you nearly always use the singular—“the team is playing on Sunday”, and if you want to emphasize the individual members of the group, you rephrase the sentence—“the team members are fighting among themselves.”

Subject-verb agreement can be tricky!  If you’re still not sure your paper has everything working properly, stop by Wordsmith Essays’ order page today.  Our team of international editors will help ensure that your paper is grammatically correct, and offer suggestions and tips on how to improve your writing.  Come check us out!

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