What Is Meant by Subject-Verb Agreement?
Subject-verb agreement is a grammatical concept according to which there must be a formal agreement or concord between the subject of a sentence (which can be a noun or pronoun) and its verb. This concept, therefore, can also be called ‘verb conjugation’.
In layman terms, the speaker or writer must ensure that the verb agrees with the subject in number and person and that a cordial agreement between the two exists in person, number, and tense. It is important to note that every verb has a subject, and the form of the verb is determined not only by the tense of the sentence but also the subject’s singularity or plurality.
How Many Forms Can a Verb Take?
Any given verb, in general, can assume a total of five forms; however, the helping verb ‘to be’ can take a total of eight forms (is, am, are, was, were, be, been, and being). Most of the confusion happens while conjugating the ‘to be’ verb or while constructing a sentence in the simple present tense. Many learners find the simple present tense difficult because two forms of verbs are used in this tense – the first form (go, eat, dress, wake up, lunch, give, take, etc.) and the fifth form (goes, eats, dresses, wakes up, lunches, gives, takes, etc.)
Kindly note that the first and fifth forms can never be the same. Apart from the simple present tense, there are tenses like the present perfect tense, present perfect continuous tense, and past continuous tense, where learners end up making mistakes.
Some Standard Points to Be Noted
Some important points need to be noted by the learner before learning the main rules of subject-verb agreement. These points are mentioned below for your understanding:-
1. Either the first form or the fifth form of a verb is used while constructing sentences in the simple present tense. The first form is used with the personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘you’, and ‘they’ or a plural noun whereas the fifth form is used with the personal pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘it’ or a singular noun. It is essential to keep in mind that a verb in its first form cannot agree with a singular subject and vice versa unless there are exceptions to the rule.
(Note: In each of the example sentences, the subject has been underlined; the verb(s) italicized and made bold; the object(s) italicized; and the infinitive form of verb(s) made bold, italicized, and underlined. Subject and object complements, adverbs, adjectives, adverbial complements, and other words have been left as they are.)
Pay attention to the following sentences:
- I read English novels.
- You have my car key.
- We remember the story.
- They lunch at 2 o’clock.
- He gets his salary on the third of every month.
- She loves him very much.
- It hardly rains in our city.
- My mother goes to the market on Saturdays.
- These students attend classes twice a week.
2. As far as the helping verb ‘to be’ is concerned, it assumes the form ‘am’ in the present tenses and ‘was’ in the past tenses. With pronouns ‘you’, ‘we’, and ‘they’ or with a plural noun, it assumes the form ‘are’ in the present tenses and ‘were’ in the past tenses while with the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘it’ or with a singular noun, it takes the form ‘is’ in the present tenses and ‘was’ in the past tenses.
Look at the following sentences and observe how the ‘to be’ verb has been conjugated:
- I am an English instructor.
- I was calm when I met the boss.
- You are talented.
- Were you playing the piano last night?
- We are at home.
- We were studying while they were cooking.
- Isn’t he intelligent?
- It is very cold today.
- Was she your teacher?
- My father was watching TV while my brother and I were playing chess.
3. Unlike the helping verb ‘to be’, the helping verb ‘to have’ can take only five forms. The first form ‘have’ is used with the personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘you’, and ‘they’ or a plural noun while the fifth form ‘has’ is used with ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘it’ or a singular noun.
Look at the following example sentences:
- I have a car.
- Have you had (eaten/taken) your breakfast?
- We haven’t been to Las Vegas yet.
- They have been living in London since 2000.
- He has got a few funky pyjamas.
- She has written ten letters since last night.
- This bucket has very little water.
- The governments of China and Russia have signed an agreement.
4. A modal auxiliary verb can never come solely, meaning a verb in its first form always accompanies a modal verb. This implies that no verb in its second, third, fourth, or fifth form can be placed with a modal verb unless there is a helping verb in its root form that accompanies it. For example, the second, third, fourth, and fifth forms of the verb ‘to go’ are ‘went’, ‘gone’, ‘going’, and ‘goes’ respectively. Clearly, these forms can never appear solely with any modal verb. However, in continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous tenses, a helping verb is used along with any of the other forms. The helping verb must always be in its root (dictionary) form. Observe the following sentences:
- He will be a great scholar.
- Expenses shall not exceed $500.
- I must meet the doctor.
- They would play for hours when they were young.
- Would you like to have some coffee?
- They might be coming to see me at the office tomorrow.
- Will you have completed your project by tomorrow evening?
5. The form of a verb does not change based on the subject being singular or plural if the sentence is in the simple past tense, past perfect tense, or past perfect continuous tense. Also, modal verbs, unlike main verbs, cannot assume more than one form. Each modal verb performs quite a few functions.
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Rules Governing Subject-Verb Agreement
Many rules govern the grammatical concept of subject-verb agreement besides the standard ones mentioned above. The main rules have been discussed in detail in this post.
Some sentences might contain a singular subject followed by a verb in its plural form. Most of these sentences either depict an imagination or form a part of a conditional sentence.
- I wish I were a bird. (And not – I wish I was a bird.)
- If I were him, I would buy that car. (And not – If I was him…)
- Would that he were my friend! (And not – …he was my friend)
- She spoke to me as if she were my wife. (And not – …as if she was my wife)
- Were my dad a king, he would fulfil all my desires. (And not – Was my dad a king….)
Please note that the last example sentence follows the inversion rule. ‘Inversion’ is a grammatical concept according to which the subject must not precede but follow a verb. All interrogative and adverb interrogative sentences in English follow the rule of ‘Inversion’. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that in sentences that state a hypothetical/unreal situation, the ‘to be’ verb always assumes a plural form regardless of the singularity or plurality of the subject.
Some verbs like ‘bless’, ‘help’, ‘live’, and ‘save’ are always used in the plural form irrespective of what the subject is when they intend to convey a wish, longing, blessing, or desire. This apart, any clause following ‘I suggest’ and ‘I wish’ generally comprises a main verb in its first form and second form respectively. Consider the following sentences:
- The king save the country!
- God bless you with a long life!
- Almighty help you achieve success!
- Long live your family!
- I suggest he meet me tomorrow.
- I wish it rained today.
When the verbs ‘dare’ and ‘need’ are used as modal auxiliary verbs, they do not assume the fifth form even when the subject is singular.
- He need not do this assignment.
- Dare she challenge me?
- Your guardian need not come.
If the subject comprises two nouns and if both the nouns represent a single individual or thing, the verb assumes a singular form. Observe the following sentences and look at the way the verbs have been conjugated.
- The law and finance minister addresses a gathering next week. (The law and the finance minister address a gathering next week – this means there are two ministers. Please note that the definite article ‘the’ has been used for ‘finance minister’, implying there are two different subjects.)
- The novelist and award-winning singer has passed away.
- The entrepreneur and blogger is meeting me on Monday.
If there are two nouns in the subject and if they convey the same meaning, the verb takes a singular form. Observe the following sentences:
- The aim and objective of this agreement is to promote foreign language training.
- The meeting and discussion was fruitful.
- The result and outcome of this conversation is going to decide the future course of action.
If there is more than one noun in the subject, but if the phrase tends to convey a single idea or thought, the verb must assume a singular form.
- Sandwiches and cheese is my breakfast. (In other words: My breakfast is sandwiches and cheese.)
- Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy and wise.
- Reading books and having intricate discussions is very essential.
If there are two nouns in their singular form joined by ‘either….or’ or ‘neither…..nor’, the verb assumes a singular form. However, if one of the nouns is in its plural form, the verb assumes a form based on the singularity or plurality of the subject immediately preceding it.
- Either Fiona or Elizabeth stays in this room.
- Neither my father nor my mother was interested in attending the function.
- Either Jacqueline or her colleagues are coming to visit us next month.
- Neither the peon nor his friends have any idea about the stolen pen.
- Either the correspondent or the board of directors holds the authority to appoint a new teacher.
If there are two pronouns or a noun and a pronoun joined by ‘either…or’ or ‘neither…nor’, the verb agrees with the subject that immediately precedes it. Observe the conjugation of the verbs in the following sentences to understand this rule:
- Either you or I am to draft this proposal.
- Neither he nor they have my car key.
- Either Ramesh or your siblings have to return the money.
If the subject is a collective noun, the verb assumes a singular form. But a plural form of the verb may be used if the speaker considers the collective noun as a divided unit.
- The Government has passed the bill. (Subject considered as a single unit)
- The panel seem to be divided on this issue. (Subject considered as a divided unit)
- This jury is hearing our case.
- The team have won the match.
- The crowd is heading towards the White House.
If the subject is a noun in its plural form but referring to an amount or unit, the verb assumes a singular form. Nonetheless, if the subject conveys a plural idea or thought, the verb takes a plural form.
- Thousand rupees is a small amount for her.
- Thirty kilograms is quite heavy for a small kid.
- Five decades is a long time.
- Three decades have passed since I met him.
- Five hundred rupees were charged by this hotel for a night stay.
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Nouns such as ‘news’, ‘billiards’, ‘Physics’, ‘politics’, ‘innings’, and the like that seem to be plural but are actually singular always take a singular form of the verb.
- The news was shocking.
- The first innings is always boring.
- Physics is a tough subject.
- Billiards happens to be my favourite game.
A noun that follows the quantifier ‘each’, ‘every’, or ‘each and every’, takes a verb in its singular form. Look at the following sentences:
- Each of the students has to complete the assignment in time.
- Every boy and girl in the room is coming to the theatre.
- Each and every letter is to be written by me.
Some nouns appear to be singular but are actually plural. Thereupon, they take the plural form of a given verb. These nouns include cattle, people, police, offspring, clergy, peasantry, infantry, etc.
- The police have arrested the culprit.
- The cattle are grazing.
- The people are opposing the policy changes.
When the subject contains two nouns joined by ‘not only… but also’, the verb takes a form depending on the singularity or plurality of the noun immediately preceding it.
- Not only the teacher but also the students have objected to the new rules and regulations.
- Not only my friend but also I am going to take this exam.
- Not only the audience but also the dancer was seen running when the fire broke out.
If the subject comprises two nouns joined with help of the conjunction ‘besides’, ‘as well as’, ‘and not’, ‘in addition to’, ‘along with’, ‘together with’, or ‘like’, the verb takes the form based on the singularity or the plurality of the subject that comes first. However, if two or more nouns are joined using the conjunction ‘and’, the verb takes a plural form. Consider the following sentences:
- The director and not his subordinates has responded to our queries.
- Hillary, along with her parents, is going to the countryside next month.
- The housefly like mosquitoes spreads many diseases.
- You, he, and I were playing cricket last week.
- Max and Christy are my friends.
If the sentence begins with ‘there’ and talks about the existence of something, the helping verb ‘to be’ will assume a form based on the singularity or plurality of the subject that follows it.
- There are ten chairs in this room.
- Is there an old lady waiting for me downstairs?
- There are a few books kept on the table.
- There is a lot of confusion on this topic.
- Are there many instructors teaching Japanese at this school?
When a noun is formed out of an adjective by placing the definite article ‘the’ before it, the noun is considered to be plural, and hence, takes a plural form of a verb. Look at the following sentences:
- The rich are becoming richer while the poor are becoming poorer.
- The disabled have to be treated with care.
- The English have bested the French again!
An uncountable noun always takes a singular form of a verb. But if it is used as a countable noun in its plural form, the verb assumes a plural form too.
- Some milk has been kept for you in the fridge.
- His hair is funky, isn’t it?
- Five hairs were lying on the floor during the inspection.
- The waters of the Southern Ocean are very clean.
- The luggage is heavy.
- Knowledge is power.
When a countable noun follows ‘most of’, it is mostly in its plural form, and, thus, the verb assumes a plural form too. If the noun is countable but in its singular form, the verb will agree with the singular noun and take a singular form; but if the noun following ‘most of’ is uncountable, the verb always assumes a singular form.
- Most of the books were interesting. (Referring to many books)
- Most of the movie was watched by me. (Referring to a specific movie)
- Most of the book was boring. (Referring to a single book)
If the noun following ‘half of’ or ‘half’ is uncountable, the verb assumes a singular form; but if it is countable, the verb assumes a form depending on the singularity or plurality of the countable noun.
- Half of the teachers have gone on leave.
- About half the books in this library are worth reading.
- Nearly half of the room was filled with unwanted items.
- Half the water in these jars seems contaminated.
- Half the salt in that spoon is enough for me.
If a noun is followed by a preposition, the part after the preposition and before the verb is called the subject complement. This implies that the verb will agree with the singularity or plurality of the noun preceding the preposition.
- A batch of students comes here at night.
- This pair of shoes is mine.
- The keys on the table are my father’s.
- This bunch of flowers smells good.
- Help from all quarters is going to come.
In some sentences, a singular noun is repeated after a preposition. In such sentences, the verb assumes a singular form. However, if both the nouns are in their plural form, the verb assumes a plural form too.
- Student after student was going to the principal’s room yesterday.
- Politicians after politicians have been hoodwinking the people of this state.
- Books after books are going to pour in into this library.
Some nouns like pants, spectacles, glasses, scissors, and goggles are always used in the plural form. And so, they take the plural form of the verb.
- These pants are really tight.
- The scissors are way too sharp.
- His spectacles cost $50.
Some nouns have the same singular and plural form. Such nouns can precede a singular or plural form of the verb depending on the intent of the speaker.
- The sheep is grazing in the field. (There is only one sheep.)
- The sheep are eating their food. (More than one sheep is present.)
- The deer are running hither and thither.
- There are many fish in this lake.
- A fish normally eats smaller fish in order to survive.
If the subject is a gerund, the verb assumes a suitable form based on the singularity or plurality of the subject. However, if the subject happens to be an infinitive form of a verb, the conjugated verb is always in its singular form.
- Reading is a good habit.
- Smoking causes cancer.
- To shout (shouting) here means to invite (inviting) trouble.
- The happenings are to shock all of them.
If the subject happens to be a noun clause, the verb following it is always in its singular form.
- What you did yesterday was wrong.
- Where he lives is not my concern.
- That he is talkative is a rumour.
If the phrase ‘more than one’ precedes a noun, the verb following it will always be in the singular form. However, if the phrase happens to be ‘more than two’, ‘more than three’, etc., the verb assumes a plural form.
- More than one student is absent.
- More than three teachers are attending today’s gathering.
- More than ten people go missing in this city every month.
When ‘none’ appears as the subject in a sentence, the verb can assume a singular or plural form depending on the speaker’s intent. Notwithstanding, the subject complement must always have a noun in its plural form.
- None was injured in the accident. (Also correct – None were injured.)
- None of the students are going to attend today’s lecture.
- None of my friends have met me for nearly a month now.
If the subject is explained with the help of an adjective clause, the verb will assume a form based on the subject itself. The adjective clause in each sentence has been made bold for your understanding.
- The old man who was smiling at you is my friend.
- My neighbour, who works at a government school, is very intelligent.
- The books that are in the room have been read by me.
When numerical figures are connected using a coordinating conjunction, and when they end up acting as the subject, the verb can take a singular or plural form.
- Two and two make/makes four.
- Ten and ten add up/adds up to twenty.
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With pronouns ‘everybody’, ‘something’, ‘nobody’, ‘anyone’, ‘everything’, etc., the verb assumes a singular form.
- Somebody is knocking in the door.
- Everything you need is in the kitchen.
- Everyone needs food to survive.
- Somebody has been calling you.
- Nobody likes her.
If the noun ‘following’, ‘undersigned’, or the like assumes the role of a subject, the verb following it can be either singular or plural depending on the context. Look at the following sentences:
- The following are the five questions you need to answer.
- Undersigned is the competent authority to make changes to the document.
If a noun follows ‘either of’, ‘each of’, or ‘neither of’, it is always in its plural form. But if the subject follows a phrase such as ‘plenty of’, ‘a lot of’, ‘some of’, ‘a bit of’, ‘most of’, ‘majority of’, etc., the verb will assume a suitable form based on the singularity or plurality of the subject.
- Plenty of water is wasted daily.
- A lot of fruits need to be eaten in order to stay healthy.
- The majority of the audience was cheering the performing.
- Either of these books is his.
- Each of the students has to do the homework.
- Neither of the girls was talkative.
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