Subject-Verb Agreement

Learning Objectives

  • Identify and use verbs to match the subject of a sentence

Tense Agreement

Two speech bubbles, one blank and one with a thumbs up.

Figure 1. When double checking for tense agreement, ask yourself, “Who (or what) is doing the action of the verb?”.

The basic idea behind sentence agreement is pretty simple: all the parts of your sentence should match (or agree). Verbs need to agree with their subjects in number (singular or plural) and in person (first, second, or third).

For example:

  • I really am (first-person singular) vs. We really are (first-person plural)
  • The boy sings (third-person singular) vs. The boys sing (third-person plural)

Compound subjects are plural, and their verbs should agree. Look at the following sentence for an example:

A pencil, a backpack, and a notebook were issued to each student.

All of this sounds simple. Of course, it isn’t always obvious. Look at this example:

The direction of the three plays is the focus of my talk.

The subject of “my talk” is the direction, not plays, so the verb should be singular.

The professor, who is an amazing teacher and has written tons of books, seems to have trouble trying her shoes.

The professor (the subject) seems to have trouble tying her shoes. Don’t get distracted by “who is an amazing teacher and has written tons of books.” The incompetent professor is the subject here!

Here are some other tricky examples:

Using or with two singular subjects (the dog/the cat) – keep the verb singular (is).

  1. The dog or the cat is a troublemaker.
  2. Either the dog or the cat is a troublemaker.

What about when one subject is singular and one is plural? The rule of thumb is to have the verb agree with the closer noun.

The dogs or the cat is a troublemaker.

This is awkward but correct. When using or with one singular and one plural subject (the dogs/the cat) – put the plural noun last and use a plural verb.

  1. The cat or the dogs are troublemakers.
  2. The bird or the cats are hungry.

We also talked about collective nouns earlier. Think about whether the collective noun represents a single collective group or a bunch of different individuals.

  1. The family is going to the picnic together. (The family is one single unit.)
  2. The family are all going to meet up at the picnic. (The family are a bunch of individuals.)

In the English language, verbs usually come after subjects. But when this order is reversed, the writer must make the verb agree with the subject, not with a noun that happens to precede it. For example:

Beside the house stand sheds filled with tools.

The subject is sheds; it is plural, so the verb must be stand.

Sheds (filled with tools) stand beside the house.

Try It

Work through these slides to learn a few tips that will help you always get correct subject-verb agreement.

Consistency

One of the most common grammatical mistakes in writing is a lack of tense consistency. Writers often start a sentence in one tense but ended up in another. Look back at that sentence. Do you see the error? The first verb start is in the present tense, but ended is in the past tense.

The correct version of the sentence would be “Writers often start a sentence in one tense but end up in another.”

These mistakes often occur when writers change their minds halfway through writing, or when they come back and make changes. It is very important to maintain a consistent tense, not just in a sentence but across paragraphs and pages. Decide if something happened, is happening, or will happen and then stick with that choice.

Try It

Check your understanding of subject-verb agreement in the following interactive.

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