Explanation of Subject Verb Agreement

What is a Verb?

Subject verb agreement is important in a sentence. Before getting into subject verb agreement, it is important to remind ourselves briefly about what verbs are. Verbs are the most important parts of speech in English language. As a matter of fact, there can never be a sentence in the English without a verb. That is how important these words that denote action are.

A verb is basically a doing word which denotes action, state of being or an occurrence. Regardless of the form they are in, whether they are mental, physical or mechanical, the key is that they all denote action or activity.

Physical verbs

These are verbs that show action. In simple terms, these are the words you can use to describe something like using a tool to perform an action or a motion you have created in your body.

Let’s look at some examples to drive this point home.

I hear some people coming

Call me when you are done with today’s activities

Let’s run home before the rain falls.

Mental verbs

These are verbs that describe aspects such as thinking, understanding discovering or planning. In other words, they are mainly applicable when talking about the cognitive state.

Examples of some mental verbs in sentences:

Do you believe the existence of a supernatural being?

The boy recognized his father before seeing him

She knows where they are.

State of Being Verbs

These are also referred to as linking verbs. Their work is to denote existing conditions or situations. In most cases, these verbs are inactive because essentially they describe no action or no action is performed. To make them complete, adjectives are included as compliments.

We can have some examples to understand better;

I am a doctor

We are musicians from North America

Types of verbs

Apart from the above-mentioned forms of verbs, we also have quite a number of different types of verbs. Let’s briefly look at some of the types of verbs present.

Action verbs

These are verbs that are used to show specific action. In most case, they are applied when discussing what someone is doing or to show action. For example, do, walk, run drive

Transitive verbs

These are action verbs that are usually used to denote activities that are doable. These verbs cannot work alone; they need to have a direct object that is the receiver of the action described by the verb.

Intransitive verbs

They are almost similar to transitive verbs since they also denote activities that are doable only that they don’t have a direct object.

Auxiliary verbs

These verbs are commonly referred to as helping verbs and usually walk together with the main verbs. Their purpose is to denote the tense of the verb or make the sentence a negative or a question e.g. do, be and have.

Do vs Does

We use do and does to turn an affirmative sentence into a sentence

Do is used for the following subjects I, you, we and they

You speak English

Do you speak English?

Does is used for he, she and it.

He speaks English

Does he speak English?

Stative verbs

These are verbs that denote a state instead of an action. They are mainly about aspects such as emotions, thoughts, states of being, senses, relationships, and measurements. E.g., rotten appreciate, recognize

Modal verbs

These are forms of auxiliary verbs whose main function is to denote possibilities, permissions, abilities, and obligation e.g.,

  • Can/could/be able to
  • Shall/should
  • May/might
  • Must/have to
  • Will/would

Phrasal verbs

These are a combination of words which are usually used together to form a different meaning other than the meaning of the original verb. For example:

  • Tear up
  • Break down
  • Check in
  • Irregular verbs

These are verbs that have a different spelling pattern especially when the tense is changed. In other words, they don’t follow a regular pattern of spelling when changed to past simple verbs and past participle verbs.

When to Use Different Verbs

With the brief background of verbs that we have established, we can now get to understand the rules of subject verb agreement and when to use the different types of verbs.

The basic rule in subject verb agreement is that a singular subject takes a singular verb and a plural subject takes a plural verb.

For example:

The list of books is/are on the table

In this case, if you can identify list as the subject of the sentence, then it will be easy for you to choose the singular ‘is’ as the verb.

Rule 1

If you have a phrase beginning with of, the subject is the word before it. This is the most challenging thing when it comes to grasping the concepts of subjects in a sentence and it is the major cause of errors in subject verb agreement.

Very many people fall victim of this aspect especially if they go through the sentence hastily.

Look at the following sentences:

A bouquet of red roses lend beauty to the room.

This sounds right but it is incorrect.

Lend should be lends because our subject here is bouquet and not roses.

Rule 2

If you have two subjects that are connected by or, either/or or neither/nor should be followed by a singular verb

Examples:

  • My brother or my sister isvisiting me today
  • Neither Peter nor Mary is available today
  • Either milk or meat is a healthy source of protein.

Rule 3

In a sentence with or, either/or, or neither/nor, the verb should agree with the noun or pronoun nearest to it

Neither the cups nor the cooking stick goes on that cupboard.

Neither the cooking stick nor the cups go on that cupboard.

This rule can be sometimes tricky, especially when dealing with more subjects as it can lead to awkward sentences.

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For example:

Neither she, my brothers, nor I am going to that school.

This sentence is correct grammatically only that it sounds awkward. You can improve it by changing the sentence structure and you can have the following:

  • Neither she, I, nor my brothers are going to that school
  • She, my friends and I are not going to that school.

Rule 4

If a sentence has two or more subjects connected by ‘and’ then you are required to use a plural verb

  • Peter and John are my favorite classmates

However, there are a number of exceptions. These exceptions come especially when dealing with compound nouns.

The bed and breakfast was incredible

Breaking and entering is a punishable offense

In this case, our compound nouns are bed and breakfast and breaking and entering.

Rule 5

There are some cases in a sentence where the verb and the subject are separated by words such as, as well as, along with, not, and besides. You need to note that these phrases and words should not be thought of as part of the subject and therefore should be ignored. This means that the subject will now take its singular verb or plural verb if it is plural.

Examples:

  • Happinessas well as excitement is the cause of her tears
  • The presidentalong with the ministers is expected to make a statement today.
  • The team coachas well as his players is excited

All the phrases between the subject and verb should not distract you.

  • Oneof the doors is open
  • The peoplewho subscribe to that channel are many
  • The book,including the entire first chapter, is interesting

Apart from that, you also need to note that parentheses should not be considered part of the subject

Example:

Peter (and his disturbing girlfriend) is expected to come.

In case the sentence looks awkward you can always try to change its structure.

Rule 6

For sentences that begin with here or there, their true subject always comes after the verb.

Examples:

  • There are three rivers to cross
  • There is a wide river to cross
  • Here are the cars
  • Here is the car

Usually, the mistake people make in this case is the use of contractions.

  • Let’s take for example the sentence
  • There’sa lot of cars here today
  • There are a lot of cars here today

This is wrong but people find it easy to say there’s than to there are. Make sure you take note of this and avoid using there’s with a plural subject.

Rule 7

A singular verb should be used when dealing with sums of money, periods of time or distances as long as they are described as a unit.

Examples:

  • Hundred dollars is hard to get today
  • Ten years is the minimum sentence for that offense
  • Five miles is an easy walk for me.

For a different case such as:

Hundred dollars (i.e., dollar bills) were lost by my child.

Rule 8

For words that indicate portions such as some, a majority, a lot, and all, we revert rule 1 such that now, our verb is determined by the noun after of. If the noun coming after of is a singular noun then the verb becomes singular. The same applies to the plurals.

Example:

  • A lot of the apple has rotten
  • A lot of the apples have rotten
  • A half of the town is unemployed
  • A half of the people are unemployed
  • All of the apple is lost
  • All of the apples are lost
  • Some of the apple is missing
  • Some of the apples are missing

Rule 9

For collective nouns such as family, group, audience, jury and population, you can either decide to make the verb singular or plural depending on the context.

Examples:

  • Most of the jury is not here
  • Most of the jury are not here
  • All my family has arrived
  • All my family have arrived
  • A half of the population was not in agreement
  • A half of the population were not in agreement

Dealing with collective nouns, you need to ensure that you are accurate. Apart from that make sure you are consistent. This requires a lot of attention.

The following is one common mistake that people usually have when dealing with collective nouns:

  • The staff is making a decision on how theywant to vote

In this case, we have started with a singular verb then shifted to a plural verb. This is being inconsistent.

  • The staff are making a decision on how they want to vote.

This is an improved version of the first one as it is consistent.

This sentence can be made clearer by rewriting it. This is actually recommended when the sentence seems a bit awkward.

The staff members are making a decision on how they want to vote.

Rule 10

For a sentence that tries to express a contrary opinion or wish, we use were instead of was.

For example:

If Betsy were a boy, her name would be Ben.

Clearly here you expect that we should have used was after Betsy because Betsy is a singular subject. But in the real sense, Betsy is not a boy so that is just a wish hence we use were. In essence, such sentences are used to express what is referred to as subjunctive mood. These are sentences that are to describe things that are imaginary, wishful, hypothetical or contradicting opinions.

The subjunctive mood works by linking a singular subject with the plural verbs.

Examples:

If I were a rich man, I would have helped needy people

I wish I were home

These are wishful statements, there is no fact expressed here. This, therefore, calls for the use of were which we know as a plural verb with I which is a singular subject.

Clearly, I is our singular subject of the object clause in the subjunctive mode: I were home.

The same applies to: I were a rich man.

It is important to note that the subjunctive mood is really not taken seriously in spoken English but still very vital in formal writing.

This guide has outlined on how to apply subject verb agreement in your sentences.