Subject-Verb Agreement

A subject and the verb marching it in a sentence must agree in number. That is, when the subject is singular, the verb must be singular, and when it is plural, the verb, must accordingly, be plural.

As usual, there are rules for doing this. But before the rules, let’s get to know what a subject and a verb are-in case you have no idea.

SUBJECT: Just as nothing happens by chance, an action in a sentence has a doer. This doer is what we call the subject. Simply, the subject is the doer or performer of an action in a sentence. Usually, it is either a noun or a pronoun. Take note,this does not mean every noun or pronoun in a sentence is a subject. To be sure, ask who/what in front of the verb; the resulting answer is the subject.

Examplesūüė¶ The italicised words are subjects). ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† 1. Serah sang at church last Sunday. ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Que: who sang? ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Ans: Serah.

2. They felt sad when they heard the news.                                                                     Que: Who felt sad?                                              Ans: They

3. Betty and he were just casual lovers.      Que: Who were just casual lovers?             Ans: Betty and he  

VERB: A verb is a word that indicates an action( go, sing, play) or a state of being( is, was, seem).

Examples in sentences: ( verbs italicized) 1. Mr Sulima came to my house yesterday.

2. You seem happy today.

3. I hate criticising people.

Having explained a subject and a verb, let’s now consider the rules of subject verb agreement.

Basic Rule: The subject and the verb marching it must agree in number. That is, a singular subject takes a singular verb, and a plural subject takes a plural verb.

BEAR IN MIND: A plural verb is a verb in its infinitive or bare present tense-go, come, leave, talk etc. Its singular is formed by adding s, es, or ies- goes(go+es), comes(come+s), cries(cry+ies).

Examples:( subjects underlined and verbs italicised).                                                 1. Mr Desmond leaves next to our house.  [ Mr Desmond is a singular subject and hence, it takes a singular verb, leaves]

2. They leave next to our house.  [ They is a plural subject, so it takes a plural verb, leave.]

With the basic rule in mind, consider the more complex rules.

Rule 1: Two or more singular subjects joined by and takes a plural verb.[ And indicates addition, so when two or more singular subjects are joined by it, they collectively become plural.]

Examples:( In this examples and all others, the right form of verb to use is italicised)                                                           1. Elizabeth and she are/is very good friends.

2. The man and his children comes/come here more often.

EXCEPTION: Use a singular verb when the singular subjects seemingly refer to the same person or thing.

Examples:                                                             1. My God and father is/are great. [ My God and father here refers to the same person, so a singular verb must be used]

2. Rice and beans is/are my favourite food.

3. His only friend and counciler cheats/cheat him.

Rule 2: Use a singular verb for two or more singular subjects joined by or / nor. Or and nor, do not indicate addition, but option. That is, they imply one out of possible options.

Examples:                                                              1. Smith or Edward eats snake. [ or in this sentence implies that only one of Smith and John eats snake, not both of them. Thus, a singular subject is rightly used.]

2. Agriculture, Chemistry or Biology is/are her favourite subject. [ Only one of Agriculture, Chemistry and Biology is being referred to here, so a singular subject is used.]

Rule 3: In rule 2, we see that when two or more singular subjects are joined by or/ nor, a singular verb is used. However, if one of the subjects is plural, the verb simply agrees with whichever is closest to it. If it is the plural subject that is closest to it, a plural verb is used; and if it is the singular, a singular verb is accordingly used.

Examples:

1. Mr smith or his children eat/eats snake. [ the plural subject-his children– is closest to the verb, so it agrees with it]

2. His children or Mr smith eat/eats snake.  [ Have you taken note of the difference. Here, the verb agrees with Mr Smith because it is the closest to it, not his children]

Illustratively,

A or/nor B + Verb, the verb agrees with B, not A.

Thus, when B is plural, the verb must be plural and when singular, the verb must be singular.

Rule 4: ¬†When two subjects are joined by either…or, neither…nor, not only…but also in the form: ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† Either A or B + verb, ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† Neither A nor B + verb, ¬†or ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† Not only A but also B + verb, ¬†the verb agrees with B, the subject closest to it, not A.

Examples:

1. Either the teacher or the students  speaks/speak French.  [ The verb agrees with students not teacher.]

2. Neither the students nor the teacher speaks/speak French.[ The verb agrees with teacher, not students, since it is the closest to it]

3. Not only the man but also his children likes/like to work. [ The verb agrees with children not man.]

Rule 5: Take note of the following words/phrases: like, unlike, as well as, with, together with, along with, including, in addition to, besides.

When any of the above words/phrases join two subjects, the verb agrees with the very first subject which comes before the phrase.

Illustratively,

A, as well as B, + verb, the verb agrees with A, not B.

Examples:

  1. The man, as well as his children, is/are boastful.  [ The verb agrees with the man]
  2. The players, along with the coach, trains/train here every Sunday. [ The verb agrees with players].

Rule 6: Collective nouns acting as a unit take a singular verb. Should they act as separate entities, a plural verb is used instead.

Examples:

  1. The family is/are in a meeting.           [ Here, family, though comprising of more than one person, takes a singular verb because all the members act collectively as one unit. ]
  2. The family is/are not in agreement. [The members of the family are not acting as a unit in this case; some have different opinions to ot and on this note,  a plural verb is used. ]
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