What is subject-verb agreement? (review)

Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. Ellen ~~

A recent request about SAT tutoring sent me to review the writing and grammar questions the Scholastic Aptitude Test, as well as the American College Test (ACT). These exams focus on errors that are often on lists identifying common mistakes among college students, including failing to make verbs agree with their subjects, a topic covered in this earlier post which we revisit here.

As discussed in the previous post on verb forms, errors with verbs appear to have decreased over the years. For instance, in the 1986 survey which resulted in the Twenty Most Common Errors list, four of the twenty errors involved verbs: wrong/missing verb endings or inflections (# 6); unnecessary shift in verb tense (# 10); wrong tense of verb form (# 13); and subject-verb agreement (14). By the later survey, only the error of unnecessary shift in verb tense appearing on the list at #12, showing a slight improvement. Still, on the Shawnee.edu “Alternate Error Chart,” nearly 50% of student papers contained errors in subject-verb agreement, making it worth consideration.

In our discussion of pronoun-antecedent agreement, we saw that pronouns must agree with their antecedents in grammatical features like person, number, gender, and case. With subjects and verbs, the rule is simple – subjects and verbs must agree in number, both must be either singular or plural.

Of course nothing is simple in life or in grammar. As discussed in the previous post on verb forms, some people because of their native version of English (also known as a vernacular or dialect) have trouble identifying the verb forms of Standard English version. This is especially true of the third person singular or ~s form.

Since plural nouns are formed in English by adding an ~s, it seems only logical that plural verb forms would follow the same practice. Not so.  The third person singular of most verbs is formed with addition of an ~s. Even so, the ending is not always pronounced clearly, or it is not true of other English varieties, such as Black English.

In addition, different varieties or dialects have different speech patterns when it comes to singular and plural verbs forms. For some speakers, the following patterns are correct:

We was at the movies last night.

He don’t work here anymore. (Kolln Rhetorical Grammar 44)

It is interesting to note that the verb be is the only verb in English that has 8 forms and that has two forms in the past tense – was and were.

There are other factors which affect choosing the appropriate verb form so that the verb agrees with the subject of the clause. It’s important to focus on the subject. Just as with pronoun-antecedent agreement, it is the noun of the sentence (in this case the subject) that controls subject-verb agreement:

The man with two left shoes is leaving.

*The man with two left shoes are leaving.

The men with one left shoes are leaving.

*The men with one left shoes is leaving. (LeTourneau 119, 183)

In the examples above where an asterisk marks an incorrect sentence in Traditional Standard Grammar, the subjects are separated from the verb by other words, in these cases separated by prepositional phrases. When other words get between the subject and verb, it’s easy to lose sight of the subject so that nouns next to the verb try to grab it. Make sure that the number of the verb agrees with the number of the subject.

One is stuck. One (of the wheels) is stuck.

Linking verbs can cause trouble also with subject-verb agreement because the rule is that linking verbs agree with the subject and not the subject complement, even though the subject complement may try to take over the verb.

My favorite fruit is apples.

Apples are my favorite fruit.

In the first sentence, the subject fruit is singular so it takes the singular form is. In the second sentence, the subject apples is plural so it takes the plural form are. But, our tendency is to make the verb agree with the word that follows it.

It’s important to be able to recognize singular and plural subjects. Though this may sound obvious, there are a number of areas which cause problems; for example, indefinite pronouns and collective nouns. As seen in the post on pronoun-antecedent agreement, these word classes can be singular or plural depending on their usage. Most indefinite pronouns or adjectives (anybody, each, everything) are singular. Collective nouns (jury, class, ten millions gallons), however, can be singular or plural depending on context and meaning. When singular, these refer to the group as a single unit:

The jury convenes tomorrow.

The class is in the library.

Ten million gallons of oil is a lot of oil.

When the collective nouns refers to the group as individuals or as parts of the group, they take plural nouns:

The jury still disagree on a number of counts.

The class are giving their speeches.

Ten million gallons of oil were spilled.

Compound subjects—subjects joined by and—are plural and generally take plural verbs:

Jill and Jack like reading the sports section.

Mr. Davis and his son are in Alaska.

When the two singular subjects joined by and mean the same person, use the singular verb:

The owner and the manager is Mr. Harris.

Sometimes two singular subjects joined by and are thought of as a single unit. In these cases, use a singular verb:

Bread and butter is served with every meal.

Spaghetti and meatballs is my favorite food.

But not *Coffee and tea is served with every meal.

Prepositional phrases introduced by with, along with, together with, as well as often follow the subject. These parenthetical expressions add extra or nonessential information to a sentence without changing its meaning.

Jill, as well as Jack, likes reading the sports section.

Mr. Davis, along with his son, is in Alaska.

You can shift the prepositional phrase to the end of the sentence and see that its noun is not part of the subject:

Mr. Davis is in Alaska along with his son.

We have seen that singular subjects joined by and are compound and require plural verbs.

A doctor and a nurse are . . .

Singular subjects joined by or or nor (or either—or or neither – nor) require a singular verb:

A doctor or a nurse is . . .

If one of the subjects joined by or or nor is singular and the other is plural, the verb should agree with the closer word:

Neither the words nor the music is very original.

A few flowers or a plant is a good gift.

If sentence like this one sounds awkward, it can be rewritten with the plural subject closer to the verb:

Neither the music nor the words are very original.

Or, you can create two sentences (or independent clauses) joined by a coordinating conjunction:

A few flowers are a good gift, and so is a plant.

Though the traditional rule for subject-verb agreement may be simple – that subjects and verbs must agree in number, practicing it may not be as easy as it seems since it errors occur in nearly half the student papers in one study. Keeping the subject in mind, as well as the usage differences in the varieties of English, will help you make informed choices in choosing verbs in your writing.

(Resources: Shawnee.edu; Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar; Blumenthal, English 3200)

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