Subject-Verb Agreement

Subject-verb agreement is something that can trip up even the most experienced writers.  Mixing up singular and plural nouns and verbs can make your sentence unclear, or at least make it sound strange!

As a quick refresher, a singular subject agrees with a singular verb, usually ending in s, and a plural subject takes a plural verb.  So a baby cries while babies cry, and he wears t-shirts, but they wear blouses.  Generally, you’re following the “one –s rule”—if both your subject and verb end in s, or if neither do, then you’ve likely got something wrong there—or at least, something you’ll want to check out.

Most writers don’t really have a problem when the subject and verb are close together, but when sentences start winding and expanding, it can become easy to lose track of what you’re supposed to be highlighting, leading to dreaded subject-verb disagreement.

If there are words between your subject and verb, one easy way to make sure you’re using the right form is to ask “who” or “what” is doing  the verb.  Take, for example, this sentence:

Her collection of comic books (is/are) valuable.

It would be easy to look and go “oh, comic books is a noun, and it’s plural, so I should use “are”, the plural verb”, but that’s not what the sentence is about.  We’re not saying that comic books are valuable, we’re saying that her collection is valuable—“of comic books” just describes what her collection is.  A collection is singular, so you use the singular verb.  Always ask what your verb is actually doing, and you’ll avoid most verb/subject confusion.

Some other tips to remember:

  • Collective nouns (like class, family or team) generally take a singular verb if you’re referring to the group as a whole, but plural verbs if you’re trying to emphasize the group.
  • Each and every seem to refer to more than one thing, but grammatically, they’re considered singular, and take singular verbs—“each one” acts individually. Other tricky singular words include singular nouns ending in s (like news or politics) and uncountable nouns (advice, furniture).  These are all singular.
  • Compound subjects—two or more parts combined with an “and”—are plural, even if all the individual parts are singular. So, it’s “the owner and his brother are angry”.  However, if the “and” is part of a single person or thing—like “fish and chips”—then it’s still singular.
  • Indefinite pronouns and quantity words are particularly tough, as some take singular verbs, some take plural verbs, and some can take either, depending on the circumstances. These simply have to be memorized, as the patterns can be tricky and temporary—here’s a good list of some of the trickier ones.

As always, if you’re not sure you’ve aced your subject-verb agreement, feel free to stop by Wordsmith Essays’ order page, where our team of international editors will help make sure everything is correct and ready to go before you submit your paper.  Good luck, and good writing!

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