Six Rules for Making Subjects and Verbs Agree

By Michael

If you want to write proper English, you have to follow a rule called “subject-verb agreement.” That means that if the subject is plural (ducks), then the verb needs to be plural (quack). If the subject is singular (duck) then the verb needs to be singular (quacks).

This issue is not as picky and unimportant as you might think. Traditionally, American novelists who wanted to show that a character was uneducated would give them dialog with incorrect subject-verb agreement: “Waall, we is just gonna have to ride after them, ain’t we?” or “But suh, dey tells me not to do dat!”

It could be worse. If you spoke Basque, the object would have to agree with the subject too. In many languages, such as French, pronouns and nouns, even inanimate objects, have gender, and they have to agree with each other too. In proper Turkish, some vowels need to agree.

Notice that English verbs, unlike nouns, usually don’t become plural by adding s. In fact, many singular, present-tense verbs end with s, while many plural verbs don’t – exactly the opposite of nouns.

More than anything else, sentences that begin with several nouns tend to fool people. Here are some rules to guide you into what you should do with them:

  1. Two singular subjects connected with and are plural, and need a plural verb. For example, which is correct: “My mother and my father are visiting me” or “My mother and my father is visiting me?” After all, it’s correct to say “My father is visiting me.” But two parents together are plural, not singular, so you need to use are. Of course, a plural subject combined with a singular subject is still plural, and you would use a plural verb. For example, this is correct: “The general and his advisers are responsible for the decision.” To make it less confusing, we put the plural subject last, closest to the verb.
  2. Two singular subjects connected with the conjunctions or or nor need a singular verb. For example, “My mother or my father is going to call me today” is correct, because only one of them will be calling. It works the same way with and…or and neither…nor: “Neither my mother nor my father is going to call me today.” If one of the subjects is plural, use a plural verb: “The general or his advisers are responsible for the decision.” Again, we put the plural subject last, closest to the verb.
  3. Don’t get distracted if there’s another phrase between the subject and the verb. For example, you should say “My sister, along with her children, is visiting me next month;” even though you would say “My sister and her daughters are visiting me next month.” The verb needs to agree with the subject, not with other nouns that happen to precede the verb.
  4. Words such as either, neither, everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, someone, none or each, are singular and need a singular verb. As we just said, don’t be fooled if a singular subject is followed by plural nouns. For example, when you write “each of my daughters,” make sure the verb agrees with the singular subject each instead of the plural noun daughters. And the singular subject “everyone who knows my daughters” should be followed by the singular predicate “is impressed by them,” not “are impressed by them.”
  5. On the other hand, fractions or portions of a plural noun are still plural. Often these are expressed with prepositional phrases: “most of the students” or “half of the campus.” Use a singular verb if the object of the preposition is singular, but a plural verb if it’s plural. For example, write “Some of the students are wealthy,” and “Half of the campus is covered with trees.”
  6. Time and money are singular. Yes, five is plural, and the word yards is plural, but you would write “Five yards is all I need to finish my sewing project.”

Notice that many of these rules are really just warnings to look carefully at the sentences you write. Once you know that subjects and verbs need to agree, and you know what counts as the subject and what doesn’t, you are on your way to sounding more educated.

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20 Responses to “Six Rules for Making Subjects and Verbs Agree”

  • Krissy

    I love this. Even at my job, where our primary form of communication IS email, so many people get this wrong.

  • Daniel

    Yeah, many people get confused with either, neither, everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, someone and none.

  • jaime

    This is of great help! Examples like the ones you have just given us are very useful….they really clear out the road.

  • Allen

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. There is an Indian man on a web forum I frequent who calls me a Redneck. And until I learned this rule, I could not figure out why. Now I know. Thank you.

  • when6zkie

    how bout’ usage of be verbs, such as is, are, was and were.?!!
    can you please explain this.!!!elaborate and give some examples for the sake of us.!!!hehe., thanks.. .
    just wanna add some topics..:D

  • Jr

    that topic is great help coz it helps a lot of people…specially me coz this is my assignment hahahahaha

  • Raj

    Thank you very much for such article. And hope we will lucky have such articles in future also.

  • Ntapo ND- SA

    Was not aware of the fact that when a plural subject combined with a singular subject, to make it less confusing, we put the plural subject last, closest to the verb. I had, previously, put then anyhow.

    This is clearly of great help to us.

    Just like it
    Ha-ha haaaa

  • ola orish

    I quite gained a lot. Also wondering if you could shed light on the agreement in this phrase in the sentence below. with emphacy on crosses.

    ‘disease crosses borders’

    “This is now an international rather than a national emergency. International because disease crosses borders. International because the systems of government in Zimbabwe are now broken. There is no state capable or willing of protecting its people.

    rgs

    Ola

  • steve sarkis

    hi sirs
    i’d like to ask you a favor what do i use in the following ?do , make or give ?
    1- ………..a note
    2-……..an answer
    3- ………an excercise
    4-…..a mistake
    5- …….homework
    6-…….some practice
    7-……a plan
    8-……instruction
    9-……..an explanation
    10-……an ezamination
    11-….a lecture
    12-……advice
    13-……an announcement
    i hope you reply me the answer and iam very greatful
    steve

  • anup

    @steve
    make a note, give an answer, do homework, make some practice, make a plan, give instruction, give an explanation, give a lecture, make an announcement

  • Catherine Longo

    Steve Sarkis on April 24,2010 wrote and asked you some questions. I could not help but to notice that he spelled “grateful” greatful and thought it may be helpful for him to know.

  • Nurul Alam Shaheen

    please, sent me the rules of using all modals, helping verbs and auxiliaries in English grammar

  • janelle cato

    it’s hard or it’s easy? one question one answer.

  • luke

    Someone recently commented to me that the phrase “thank you for shopping Walmart” is grammatically incorrect; it should be “thank you for shopping AT Walmart.”

    I disagree. I think, while it is a more commonly accepted phrasing to shop at Walmart, Walmart can be shopped; therefore it is not breaking any grammar rule to say “thank you for shopping Walmart.”

    What do you think?

  • Clevis

    “WalMart” in that sentence functions adverbially, albeit without any grammatical markers such as prepositions to designate it as such. “To shop WalMart” is perfectly correct, but the “WalMart” might look to some to be just floating out there disconnected.

  • John

    “There are a book and a pencil on the table.”

    OR

    “There is a book and a pencil on the table.”

    Neither sounds right.

    I found the sentence: “On the right side in the 2nd segment there are a 12-mm and a 14-mm structure….” That’s why I ask.

  • Todd

    I have searched around your site, and haven’t found an article that mentions another twist on the “a/an” question. I would like to see a daily article on articles vs. plurality.

    For instance why do we say, “an occasion” vs. “an occasions?” I can’t quite figure out a way to articulate to my co-workers why this is wrong. We have documented the bit about vowels vs. consonants, but is a/an always and only used with a singular noun?

  • Tahir Khan

    A and B present or presents a musical evening. A and B invites or invite you to a dinner.

  • kit

    It’s A and B present a musical evening. A and B invite you to a dinner.

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