Self Teaching Unit:
Subject – Verb Agreement
© 2000, 1978 Margaret L.
Benner All rights reserved.
Although you are probably already
familiar with basic subject-verb agreement, this chapter begins with a quick
review of basic agreement rules.
Subjects and verbs
must AGREE with one another in number
(singular or plural). Thus, if a
subject is singular, its verb must also be singular; if a subject is plural, its
verb must also be plural.
In the present tense, nouns and verbs
form plurals in opposite ways: nouns ADD an s
to the singular form; verbs
REMOVE the s from the singular form.
These agreement rules do not apply to
verbs used in the simple past tense without any helping verbs.
The agreement rules do, however, apply
to the following helping verbs when they are used with a main verb: is-are, was-were, has-have,
The agreement rules do not apply to has-have when used as the
SECOND helping verb in a pair.
They do NOT apply to any other helping
verbs, such as can, could, shall, should,
may, might, will, would, must.
The subject-verb agreement rules apply
to all personal pronouns except I and you,
which, although SINGULAR, require PLURAL forms of verbs.
click on the link below to do exercise 1.
Link to Exercise 1
The remainder of this teaching unit
deals with some more advanced subject-verb agreement rules and with exceptions
to the original subject-verb agreement rule
The word “compound” means “made
up of two or more parts.” Two or
more words can be compounded or linked by joining them with any of three words:
and, or, and nor
Here are some examples of compounding:
Compound nouns can function as a
“compound subject.” In some
instances, a compound subject poses special problems for the subject-verb
agreement rule (+s, -s).
However, instead of using two
sentences (as above), we may choose to give the above information in one
This sentence makes use of a compound subject (two
subject nouns joined by and),
illustrating a new rule about
Although each part of the compound
subject is singular (ranger
taken together (joined by and),
each one becomes a part of a plural structure and, therefore, must take a plural verb (see) to agree
in the sentence.
RULE #1 – Two or more singular (or plural)
subjects joined by and
act as a plural
compound subject and take a plural
verb (singular + singular = plural).
You can check the verb by substituting
the pronoun they
for the compound subject.
as joiners work somewhat differently from and. While
the word and
seems to ADD things together, or and nor do not. They
suggest a CHOICE.
Look at this sentence.
This sentence makes use of a compound subject (two
subject nouns joined together by or).
Each part of the compound subject (ranger,
camper) is singular. Even
though both words function together as subject (joined by or),
the subject still remains SINGULAR (ranger
or camper) since a CHOICE is
subject, therefore, requires a singular
verb to agree with it.
RULE #2 – Two or more SINGULAR subjects
joined by or (or nor) act as a singular compound subject
and, therefore, take a singular verb
Two or more plural subjects joined by or
(or nor) would naturally take a plural
verb to agree.
and nor can pose a more
Thus far we have been working with
compound subjects whose individual parts are both
either singular or plural
if one part of the compound subject is singular and the other part is plural?
What form of a verb should be used in
this case? Should the verb be
singular to agree with one word? Or
should the verb be plural to agree with the other?
If the individual parts of the compound subject are joined by and,
always use a plural verb.
If the individual parts of the compound subject are joined by or
use the verb form (singular or plural) which will agree with the subject
closer to the verb.
click on the link below to do exercise 2.
Link to Exercise 2
Some nouns which name groups can be
either singular or plural depending upon their meaning in individual sentences.
Because they can describe either the
individuals in the group (more than one – plural), or the group as a single
entity (one only – singular), these nouns pose special problems.
However, there are some guidelines for
deciding which verb form (singular or plural) to use with one of these nouns as
the subject in a sentence.
If we refer to the group as a whole and, therefore, as a single
unit, we consider the noun singular. In this case, we use a singular verb.
If, on the other hand, we are actually
referring to the individuals
within the group, then we consider the noun plural.
In this case, we use a plural verb.
Of course group nouns, like other nouns,
can also appear in plural forms (with an s).
When used in the plural
form, group nouns mean MORE THAN ONE GROUP.
Thus, it uses a plural verb.
Thus, there are three important subject
– verb agreement rules to remember when a group noun is used as the subject:
Group nouns can be considered as a single unit, and, thus, take a singular
Group nouns can be considered as individual members within a single unit and, thus, take a plural
Group nouns can be given plural forms to mean two
or more units and, thus, take a plural
click on the link below to do exercise 3.
Link to Exercise 3
Plural Form / Singular Meaning Nouns
Some nouns are regularly plural in form, but singular in meaning.
Even though these nouns APPEAR to be
plural because they end in s,
they actually refer to only one
thing made up of smaller, uncounted parts.
Therefore, they are considered singular.
You can see that substituting that
instead of they makes more sense here.
Another group of plural form nouns end
is a more suitable substitute for any of these words than is they.
These nouns appear to be plural (end in s), but generally
refer to only one thing and are, therefore, generally considered singular.
Occasionally, however, the –ics nouns can have a plural
meaning: We can speak about
individual parts of these wholes. In
this case, we apply the same rule as applies to group nouns when we consider the
individual members within the group (see Section 3.3):
We use a plural
Note the difference in meaning and,
therefore, in the verb chosen (singular or plural) between the two uses of the –ics noun, statistics.
click on the link below to do exercise 4.
Link to Exercise 4
Indefinite pronouns can pose special
problems in subject – verb agreement.
The difficulty is that some indefinite
pronouns sound plural when they are
As subjects, the following indefinite
pronouns ALWAYS take singular
verbs. Look at them
These should be easy to remember.
However, the following indefinite
pronouns ALWAYS take plural
A third group of indefinite pronouns
takes either a singular or plural
verb depending on the pronoun’s meaning in the sentence. Look at them closely.
click on the link below to do exercise 5.
Link to Exercise 5
So far we have considered subjects that
can cause subject-verb agreement confusion: compound
noun subjects, plural
form – singular meaning subjects, and indefinite subjects.
The remainder of this teaching unit
examines subject – verb agreement problems that can result from word
placement in sentences. There
are four main problems: prepositional
beginning with who,
sentences beginning with here
Here is a list of frequently used
A prepositional phrase may be placed
between the subject and verb.
In the above example, the singular verb is agrees with the singular subject boy.
Sometimes, however, a prepositional
phrase inserted between the subject and verb makes agreement more difficult.
Car is the singular
subject. Was is the singular helping verb which agrees with car.
If we aren’t careful, however, we may mistakenly label riders as the subject since it is nearer
to the verb than car
is. If we choose the plural noun, riders,
we will incorrectly select the plural verb were.
to the Prepositional Phrase Problem
Learn the major prepositions (see page 28).
Be alert for prepositional phrases placed between the subject and verb,
and identify the noun in the phrase immediately as the object
of a preposition: An object of a preposition can NEVER be a sentence
Locate the true sentence subject
and choose a verb which agrees with it.
Remember the indefinite pronoun EXCEPTIONS considered in Section 3.5,
p.18: Some, Any, None,
All, and Most.
The number of these subject words IS affected by a prepositional
phrase between the subject and verb.
click on the link below to do exercise 6.
Link to Exercise 6
A clause beginning with who,
that, or which
and coming BETWEEN the subject and verb can cause agreement problems.
Like the prepositional phrase, the who / that / which clause
never contains the subject.
AVOID SUBJECT – VERB AGREEMENT ERRORS .
/ that / which clauses immediately.
Locate the true sentence subject and choose a verb that agrees with it.
click on the link below to do exercise 7.
Link to Exercise 7
When a sentence begins with there is – there are / here is
– here are, the subject and verb are inverted. After all that you have learned already, you will undoubtedly
find this topic a relatively easy one!
The verb in such constructions is
The subject, however, does not come BEFORE the verb.
Instead, the subject in this kind of
sentence comes AFTER the verb, so you must look for it AFTER the verb.
In this example, because the subject, book, is singular, the
verb must also be singular.
If the subject is plural, however, then
the verb must be plural.
In this example, because the subject, books, is plural, the verb
is also plural.
is – here are / there is – there are constructions, look for the
subject AFTER the verb and choose a singular (is)
or a plural (are) verb to agree with
And finally, sometimes creating a
question will cause the subject to follow the verb as well. Here, identify the
subject and then choose the verb that agrees with it (singular or plural).
click on the link below to do exercise 8.
Link to Exercise 8
on the link below to do the Post Test.
Link to Post Test
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