Subject-verb agreement is a fundamental aspect of English grammar crucial in maintaining clarity and coherence. By ensuring that the subject and verb in a sentence agree in number, we can convey our thoughts accurately and effectively. In this article, we will explore the rules of subject-verb agreement that will equip you with the knowledge to enhance your English writing and speaking skills and avoid common errors.
20 Rules of Subject-Verb Agreement in the English Language
Here are the twenty unavoidable rules to follow concerning subject-verb agreement in English sentences.
1. Subjects and verbs must agree in number. This is the cornerstone rule that forms the background of the concept.
Here are some examples that illustrate this rule of subject-verb agreement:
- The cat is sleeping.
- The cats are sleeping.
- He runs every morning.
- They run every morning.
In the first example, the singular subject “cat” agrees with the singular verb “is.” In the second one, the plural subject “cats” agrees with the plural verb “are.”
For the third example, the singular subject “he” agrees with the singular verb “runs” while in the fourth example, the plural subject “they” agrees with the plural verb “run.“
These examples demonstrate how subjects and verbs must agree in number, whether it’s a singular subject with a singular verb or a plural subject with a plural verb.
2. Do not get confused by the words that come between the subject and verb; they do not affect the agreement.
Here are the examples that illustrate how words between the subject and verb do not affect the agreement:
The dog, along with his puppies, is playing in the yard.
In this sentence, “dog” is the subject, and “is” is the singular verb. Although the phrase “along with his puppies” comes between the subject and verb, it does not affect the agreement. The verb “is” remains singular to agree with the singular subject “dog.”
The team, including their coach, is practicing for the upcoming tournament.
In this example, “team” is the subject, and “is” is the singular verb. The phrase “including their coach” is inserted between the subject and verb, but it does not alter the agreement. The verb “is” remains singular to match the singular subject “team.”
3. Prepositional phrases between the subject and verb usually do not affect agreement.
Here are examples that demonstrate how prepositional phrases between the subject and verb typically do not affect agreement:
- The book on the table belongs to me.
- The books on the table belong to me.
The prepositional phrase “on the table” is placed between the subject “book” and the verb “belongs.” However, the verb remains singular to agree with the singular subject “book.” In the second example, the prepositional phrase remains the same, but the verb “belong” becomes plural to match the plural subject “books.”
These examples illustrate that prepositional phrases placed between the subject and verb generally do not affect the agreement. The agreement is determined by the number (singular or plural) of the subject, and the presence of prepositional phrases does not alter this agreement.
4. When sentences start with “there” or “here,” the subject will always be placed after the verb, so care needs to be taken to identify it correctly.
- There is a cat in the garden.
- There are several books on the shelf.
In both examples, the subject (“a cat” and “several books“) follows the verb (“is” and “are“) after the word “there.” Care must be taken to identify the subject correctly in these sentences since the typical subject-verb word order is reversed.
- Here comes the bus.
- Here are your keys.
In these examples, the subject (“the bus” and “your keys“) comes after the verb (“comes” and “are“) following the word “here.”
When encountering sentences starting with “there” or “here,” it is important to identify the subject correctly as it comes after the verb. This helps maintain subject-verb agreement and ensures the sentence’s grammatical accuracy.
5. Subjects don’t always come before verbs in questions. Make sure you
accurately identify the subject before deciding on the proper verb form to use.
Here are examples that demonstrate how subjects don’t always come before verbs in questions, emphasizing the importance of accurately identifying the subject:
- Is the book on the table yours?
- Are the dogs in the backyard barking?
In both examples, the subject (“the book” and “the dogs“) comes after the verb (“is” and “are“) in the interrogative sentences. Accurately identifying the subject is crucial to determine the appropriate verb form.
- Have you finished your homework?
- Did they go to the park?
Here, the subjects (“you” and “they“) are positioned after the auxiliary verbs (“have” and “did“) in the questions. Properly identifying the subject enables us to select the correct verb form.
These examples highlight the importance of accurately identifying the subject in questions before deciding on the appropriate verb form. Subjects in questions can appear after the verb or auxiliary verb, and being mindful of this allows for correct subject-verb agreement in sentence construction.
6. If two subjects are joined by and, they typically require a plural verb form.
- John and Sarah are going to the party.
- The dog and the cat are playing in the yard.
In both examples, the subjects (“John and Sarah” and “the dog and the cat“) are connected by the conjunction “and.” As a result, a plural verb form (“are“) is used to maintain subject-verb agreement.
7. The verb is singular if the two subjects are separated by and refer to the same person or thing.
- The captain and coach is the same person.
- Bread and butter is a common breakfast choice.
- Playing the piano and singing is her passion.
Here, “the captain and coach” refers to a single individual who holds both roles, so the verb “is” remains singular to match the singular subject.
In the second example, “bread and butter” is considered a single entity or combination, so the verb “is” remains singular.
For the third one, “playing the piano and singing” represents a singular activity or passion, so the verb “is” remains singular.
8. If the words each, every, or no come before the subject, the verb is singular.
- Each student has a textbook.
- Every house needs maintenance.
- No one knows the answer.
These examples demonstrate that when the words “each,” “every,” or “no” are used before the subject, the verb that follows remains singular to maintain the subject-verb agreement.
9. If the subjects are both singular and are connected by the words or, nor, neither/nor, either/or, and not only/but also the verb is singular.
- The dog or the cat is responsible for knocking over the vase.
- Neither the teacher nor the students was aware of the change.
- Either John or Sarah is going to the party.
- Not only the flowers but also the vase belongs to Alice.
The examples above highlight that when the subjects connected by “or,” “nor,” “neither/nor,” “either/or,” or “not only/but also” are both singular, the verb remains singular to maintain the subject-verb agreement.
10. The only time when the object of the preposition factors into the decision of plural or singular verb forms is when noun and pronoun subjects like some, half, none, more, all, etc. are followed by a prepositional phrase. In these sentences, the object of the preposition determines the form of the verb.
- Some of the cake is missing.
- Some of the cakes are missing.
- Half of the pizza has been eaten.
- Half of the pizzas have been eaten.
- None of the money was recovered.
- None of the coins were recovered.
These examples demonstrate that when noun and pronoun subjects like “some,” “half,” “none,” “more,” “all,” etc. are followed by a prepositional phrase, the object of the preposition determines the form of the verb, leading to either plural or singular verb forms accordingly.
11. The singular verb form is usually used for units of measurement.
- Five kilometers is a long distance to walk.
- Two hours is the duration of the meeting.
In these examples, the units of measurement “kilometers” and “hours” are treated as singular nouns, and the verb “is” is used in its singular form to agree with it.
12. If the subjects are both plural and are connected by the words or, nor, neither/nor, either/or, and not only/but also, the verb is plural.
- The dogs or the cats are making a lot of noise.
- Neither the students nor the teachers want to go on the field trip.
- Either the apples or the oranges are on sale.
- Not only the birds but also the squirrels are gathering food for winter.
When the subjects connected by “or,” “nor,” “neither/nor,” “either/or,” or “not only/but also” are both plural, the verb must also be plural to maintain the subject-verb agreement.
13. If one subject is singular and one plural and the words are connected by the words or, nor, neither/nor, either/or, and not only/but also, you use the verb form of the subject that is nearest the verb.
When one subject is singular and the other is plural, connected by the words “or,” “nor,” “neither/nor,” “either/or,” or “not only/but also,” you should use the verb form that agrees with the subject that is nearest to the verb. Here are examples that demonstrate this rule:
- Neither the dogs nor the cat likes the rain.
- Not only the teacher but also the students have completed the assignment.
In the first example, the singular subject “cat” is closer to the verb “likes,” so the verb takes the singular form “likes”. On the other hand, the plural subject “students” is closer to the verb “have completed,” so the verb takes the plural form “have completed” to agree with the nearest subject.
14. Indefinite pronouns typically take singular verbs.
- Everyone is excited about the party.
- Somebody has left their umbrella behind.
- Nobody wants to be left behind.
- Each of the students has submitted their assignment.
These examples illustrate that indefinite pronouns, such as “everyone,” “somebody,” “nobody,” and “each,” require singular verbs to maintain the subject-verb agreement.
15. *Except for the pronouns (few, many, several, both) that always take the plural form.
- Few of the students were present in class today.
- Many have tried, but few have succeeded.
- Several have volunteered to help with the project.
- Both of them are talented musicians.
The examples above illustrate that the pronouns “few,” “many,” “several,” and “both” always take the plural form of the verb to ensure subject-verb agreement.
16. If two infinitives are separated by and, they take the plural form of the verb.
- To walk and to chew gum require great skill.
- To learn and to grow are essential to life.
- To be and to do are two different things.
- To see and to be seen are two different experiences.
- To know and to understand are not the same thing.
In each of these sentences, the two infinitives are joined by the conjunction “and.” The verb that follows the conjunction must agree with the subject of the sentence, which is the two infinitives. Since the two infinitives are plural, the verb must also be plural. In this case, the verb is “require,” which is in the plural form.
Remember that this rule only applies when the two infinitives are separated by “and.” If the two infinitives are not separated by “and,” then the verb can be singular or plural, depending on the context of the sentence.
17. When gerunds are used as the subject of a sentence they take the singular verb form of the verb, but when they are linked by and they take the plural form.
- Singing is my favorite hobby.
- Playing video games is a waste of time.
- Learning new things is exciting.
In each of these sentences, the gerund is the subject of the sentence. The verb that follows the gerund must agree with the subject, hence the verbs are singular in these circumstances.
However, when two gerunds are joined by “and,” the verb must be plural. For instance:
- Learning new things and meeting new people are exciting experiences.
- Swimming in the ocean and hiking in the mountains are my favorite ways to relax.
- Reading a good book and taking a nap are my favorite ways to unwind.
In these sentences, the gerunds are linked by “and”. The verb that follows the gerunds must agree with the subjects, which are the two gerunds. Since the two gerunds are plural, the verb must also be plural. In these cases, the verbs are “are.”
18. Collective nouns like herd, senate, class, crowd, etc. usually take a
singular verb form.
- The jury is deliberating.
- The flock of geese is flying south.
- The herd of cattle is grazing in the field.
- The team is playing well tonight.
- The class is working on a project.
Here, the collective noun is the subject of the sentence. The verb that follows the collective noun must agree with the subject, so the verbs are singular in these examples.
19. Titles of books, movies, novels, etc. are treated as singular and take a singular verb.
- “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a classic novel by Harper Lee.
- “The Lord of the Rings” is a popular fantasy series by J.R.R. Tolkien.
- “Gone with the Wind” remains a beloved film from the 1930s.
- “Pride and Prejudice” is a famous novel by Jane Austen.
- The Shawshank Redemption is a moving film
- The Hunger Games is a great book.
The title of the book, movie, or novel is the subject of the sentence. The verb that follows the title must agree with the subject, so the verbs are singular in these cases.
Please remember that this rule applies even if the title of the book, movie, or novel has a plural word in it. For example, the title of the book “The Hunger Games” has the plural word “Games” in it, but the verb “is” is singular because the title is treated as a singular noun.
20. Final Rule – Remember, only the subject affects the verb!