20 Rules About Subject-Verb Agreement

By Mark Nichol

Is, or are? Go, or goes? Whether a verb is singular or plural depends on any one of a complicated set of factors. Here is a roster of rules for subject-verb agreement (or “Here are some rules . . .”):

1. Use verbs that agree with a subject, not with a noun that is part of a modifying phrase or clause between verb and subject:

“The pot of eggs is boiling on the stove.”

2. Use singular or plural verbs that agree with the subject, not with the complement of the subject:

“My favorite type of movie is comedies,” but “Comedies are my favorite type of movie.”

3. Use singular verbs with singular indefinite pronouns — each, the “-bodies,” “-ones,” and “-things” (anybody, everyone, nothing), and the like:

“Neither is correct.” (And, just as in rule number 1, the presence of a modifier is irrelevant: “Neither of them is correct.”)

4. Use plural verbs with plural indefinite pronouns:

“Many outcomes are possible.”

5. Use singular verbs with uncountable nouns that follow an indefinite pronoun:

“All the paint is dried up.”

6. Use plural verbs with countable nouns that follow an indefinite pronoun:

“All the nails are spilled on the floor.”

7. Use plural verbs with compound subjects that include and:

“The dog and the cat are outside.”

8. Use plural verbs or singular verbs, depending on the form of the noun nearest the verb, with compound subjects that include nor or or:

“Either the dog or the cats are responsible for the mess.” (“Either the cats or the dog is responsible for the mess” is also technically correct but is awkward.)

9. Use singular verbs with inverted subjects that include singular nouns:

“Why is my hat outside in the rain?”

10. Use plural verbs with inverted subjects (those beginning with the expletive there rather than the actual subject) that include plural nouns:

“There are several hats outside in the rain.”

11. Use singular or plural verbs with collective nouns depending on meaning:

“His staff is assembled,” but “Staff are asked to go to the conference room immediately.” (In the first sentence, the emphasis is on the body of employees; in the second sentence, the focus is on compliance by each individual in the body of employees.)

12. Use singular verbs for designations of entities, such as nations or organizations, or compositions, such as books or films:

“The United Nations is headquartered in New York.”

13. Use singular verbs for subjects plural in form but singular in meaning:

“Physics is my favorite subject.”

14. Use singular or plural verbs for subjects plural in form but plural or singular in meaning depending on the context:

“The economics of the situation are complicated,” but “Economics is a complicated topic.”

15. Use plural verbs for subjects plural in form and meaning:

“The tweezers are in the cupboard.”

16. Use plural verbs in constructions of the form “one of those (blank) who . . .”:

“I am one of those eccentrics who do not tweet.”

17. Use singular verbs in constructions of the form “the only one of those (blank) who . . .”:

“I am the only one of my friends who does not tweet.”

18. Use singular verbs in constructions of the form “the number of (blank) . . .”:

“The number of people here boggles the mind.”

19. Use plural verbs in constructions of the form “a number of (blank) . . .”:

“A number of people here disagree.”

20. Use singular verbs in construction of the forms “every (blank) . . .” and “many a (blank) . . .”:

“Every good boy does fine”; “Many a true word is spoken in jest.”

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19 Responses to “20 Rules About Subject-Verb Agreement”

  • Dan

    Subject–verb (en dash) agreement, surely. 😉

  • Graham

    My favourite type of movie is a comedy.

  • Susan

    Love the blog. Look forward to it. However, I believe 16 today is incorrect: I am one of those eccentrics who DOES not twee. The subject is not eccentrics, and both I and one are singular. Those who do not tweet, yes , but I am one who does not tweet. I can’t see how DO is right.

    Thanks.

  • teacherleola

    I mostly agree. Like Susan, I would mark 16 wrong. “I am one” preempts the prepositional phrase “of those eccentrics.”

    You were just trying to catch us napping, right?

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Susan,

    I believe the example is actually correct. The verb is agreeing with the subject “eccentrics” and not with “I”, so it’s in the plural form.

  • Nann Dunne

    @Susan: Maybe this helps. Those eccentrics do not tweet. I am one of them. Ergo, I am one of those eccentrics who do not tweet.

  • Janey

    I have to agree with Susan. Example 16 should invoke rules 1 and 3. The subject is singular (with a plural in the modifying prepositional phrase) and requires a singular verb.
    Good catch, Susan. I hadn’t read through all the way, but came to see if there was a print option to print this post out to use in school with my kids next week. Scrolling to the bottom I noticed all the comments on #16. Had to take a look 🙂
    Mark, thanks for the great tips and reminders. This site is going to be a great resource in our homeschool!

  • Nann Dunne

    @Janey: I believe it has to do with interpretation or maybe with taking the sentence out of context.
    If you make the verb singular, you’re saying that you’re an eccentric who does not tweet. But you’ve distanced yourself from the “body” of those eccentrics who do not tweet. You could be any type of eccentric. Does that help?

  • Sally

    Nann is correct here.

    Another way of expressing her point (and Mark’s) is to write “Some eccentrics do not tweet. I am one of those.”

  • Toby

    In 10, I would change that to simply “Several hats are outside in the rain”.

  • richmond

    @ susan #16 is perfectly correct. I am one of those eccentrics implies others besides me, so a plural verb goes. As you can see in #17 the article ‘the’ is used, I am the only one of my
    friends which means no one else except for me, so a singular verb should follow.

  • Precise Edit

    #16 is correct. Here’s why.

    1. “Who” is a third person subject pronoun for both singular and plural antecedents.
    ex: Who is that girl? (used as a singular pronoun)
    ex: Who are those girls? (used as a plural pronoun)

    2. In #16, the antecedent of “who” is “eccentrics,” which is plural, so “who” is being used as a plural pronoun.

    3. As a subject pronoun, “who” requires a verb. Here, the verb is either “do” or “does.”

    4. Now that we know that “who” is being used as a third person plural pronoun, we find the matching verb form. In the third person plural, the verb form is “do.”

    Another way to look at this (maybe the easier way):
    The antecedent for “who” is “eccentrics.” As in all cases, the antecedent and pronoun are (should be) interchangeable.
    Example: Bob is nice. I like him. –> Bob is nice. I like Bob.

    Because pronouns and antecedents are interchangeable, we can put “eccentrics” in place of “who,” and the choice between “do” and “does” becomes clear. We would say, “eccentrics do not tweet.”
    [Yes, in the example, we need to use “who” to introduce the restrictive clause, but the principle still works.]

  • agussatoto

    Check these out:

    those eccentrics do not tweet. i do not tweet. they and i do not tweet. we are eccentrics who do not tweet. it means there are eccentrics who tweet. i am an eccentric and i do not tweet. i am an eccentric who DOES/DO NOT tweet???? I am one of those eccentrics who do not tweet OR I am one of those untweeting eccentrics. Those eccentrics do not tweet and I am one of them. More confused?

  • GBryceYukon

    agussatoto said, in part: «those eccentrics do not tweet. i do not tweet. they and i do not tweet. we are eccentrics who do not tweet. it means there are eccentrics who tweet….»

    I disagree with the last sentence. Certainly there are eccentrics who tweet – perhaps they are British train-spotters who tweet what they spot – but those are not the eccentrics under discussion.

    To me, “I am one of those eccentrics who do not tweet” means that ALL people who do not tweet are eccentric. It is defining non-tweeters as eccentric, not commenting on the larger group of people who are eccentric in other ways.

    I am one who has never tweeted in his life except in an effort to talk to certain birds, but I do love trains!

  • Pat T

    The Chicago Manual of Style has this to offer (16th ed., 5.59):

    “A relative pronoun takes its number from its antecedent. . . . if “one” is part of a noun phrase with a plural noun such as ‘one of the few’ or ‘one of those,’ the relative pronoun’s antecendent us usually not ‘one’ but the noun in the genitive construction {one of the few countries that cultivate farm-raised fish as a staple}{she is one of those people who are famous just for being famous}. Always read carefully, though; in some constructions like these the antecedent is still ‘one’ {he is the one among them who is trustworthy}.”

    I would say that this interpretation supports Mark’s #16 and #17.

  • Angelin L

    According to grammarians, Wren & Martin in ‘High School English Grammar and Composition’, (120th edition 1987), when the Subject of the verb is a relative pronoun, the verb should agree in number with the antecedent of the relative.

    Therefore, going by this, the verb ‘do’ agreeing with the antecedent (eccentrics) of the relative pronoun ‘who’ is correct.

    Relative pronouns referring to plural antecedents generally require plural verbs.

  • Gloria Rumberger

    Your example for #4 is flawed. In that sentence, many is not an indefinite pronoun; it is an adjective modifying the subject noun outcomes.

  • manuel

    #16 is correct because the pronoun I is plural in form though referring to a single person. I agrees with “do”.

  • Shiv

    SImple technique to remember Rule 16 is when ever a pronoun such as who, that and which are coming, you have to see the word preceding the pronoun. If it is plural use plural or vice versa

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