G1: Making Sure Subject and Verbs Agree

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Recognize typical subject/verb agreement.
  2. Learn how to match the subject and verb when other words come between them, how to work with compound subjects, how to use titles involving collective subjects, and how to use indefinite subjects.
  3. Learn the rules for matching subjects coming after the verb, relative pronouns, gerunds, infinitives, and singular subjects that look plural.

Subjects and verbs must agree in two ways: number (singular or plural) and person (first, second, or third). These two general rules hold through all the different subject/verb guidelines. As a rule, plural subjects end in –s and plural verbs do not end in –s.

This video from Khan Academy explains the concept of subject-verb agreement:

Subject-verb agreement

Pairing Verbs with Singular and Plural Subjects

Many sentences have subjects and verbs that appear side by side. The subjects in these sentences are often clearly singular or plural, and they clearly determine the needed verb form.

In the following grammar samples, the noun is in bold and the verb is in italic.

Pairing Verbs with Singular and Plural Subjects
Situation Example Watch Out For
Typical singular subject followed directly by the verb The US government establishes national parks on an ongoing basis, such as the six parks formed in Alaska in 1980. Don’t get confused into thinking that a singular subject needs a verb without an -s. The plural version would be “governments establish.”
Typical plural subject followed directly by the verb National parks provide wonderful opportunities for people to commune with nature. The subject “parks” is plural and it agrees with “provide.” The singular version would be “park provides.”

Matching Subjects and Verbs That Are Separated by Other Words

When words fall between a subject and verb, the singular/plural state of the subject is sometimes confusing. Always make sure you are matching the verb to the subject and not to one of the words between the two.

Matching Subjects and Verbs
Situation Example Watch Out For
Words fall between subject and verb Six national parks in Alaska were formed in 1980. Mistaking “Alaska” for the subject would make it seem as if the verb should be “was formed.” In Alaska is a prepositional phrase.

Joining Plural Verbs to Compound or Double Subjects

Compound subjects joined by the word “and” are plural since there is more than one of them. Double subjects joined by “or” or “nor” match to a verb based on the status of the subject closest to the verb.

 
Situation Example Watch Out For
Compound subject with plural verb Rock and grass combine to make Badlands National Park amazing. “Rock and grass” is a plural subject formed by two singular words. Don’t get confused and use “combines” for the verb because the individual subjects are singular.
Non-compound double subject functioning as a singular subject Depending on where you look, rock or grass dominates your view. Since the subjects are joined by “or,” they do not automatically become plural because there are two of them.

Pairing Singular Verbs with Titles and Collective Subjects

Regardless of the singular or plural nature of the words within a title, the title is considered one unit; thus it is a singular noun. Similarly, collective nouns, such as “committee,” function as singular nouns regardless of how many people or items might actually make up the collective noun.

Pairing Singular Verbs with Titles and Collective Subjects
Situation Example Watch Out For
Title with singular verb Everglades National Park preserves thousands of acres of wetlands. This title isn’t plural just because word “Everglades” is plural. The park is one thing and, therefore, is singular.
Collective subject with singular verb The team meets twice a year at Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park. Although you know that the “team” is made up of more than one person, “team” is viewed as a single unit.

Teaming Singular Verbs with Indefinite Subjects

Whether an indefinite subject is singular or plural depends on whether the indefinite noun has a singular or plural meaning on its own or based on the rest of the sentence. But first, it is important to understand what is meant by indefinite subject, and here is a video from Khan Academy to explain:

Indefinite Pronouns | The parts of speech | Grammar | Khan Academy

Now that you have an understanding of what an indefinite subject looks like, this table illustrates how to create grammatically correct sentences with indefinite subjects.

Teaming Singular Verbs with Indefinite Subjects
Situation Example Watch Out For
Indefinite subject with singular meaning on its own Each of the fossils in the Petrified Forest National Park tells a story. Even though there is more than one fossil, the word “each” is always singular. Many indefinite subjects are always singular. Examples include another, anyone, anything, each, everybody, everything, neither, nobody, one, other, and something.
Indefinite subject with singular meaning based on the rest of the sentence All of Arizona was once located in a tropical region. Since “Arizona” is singular, “all” is singular. Some indefinite subjects can be singular or plural. Examples include all, any, more, most, none, some, and such.
Indefinite subject with plural meaning based on the rest of the sentence All the petrified trees in the Petrified Forest National Park are millions of years old. Since “trees” is plural, “all” is plural.
Indefinite subject with plural meaning on its own Both scrubland and rock formations are common in desert settings. Some indefinite subjects are always plural. Examples include both, few, fewer, many, others, several, and they.

Choosing Verbs When the Subject Comes after the Verb

The standard sentence format in English presents the subject before the verb. In reversed sentences, you need to find the subject and then make sure it matches the verb. To find the subject, fill the following blank with the verb and then ask the question of yourself: who or what _____?

Choosing Verbs When the Subject Comes after the Verb
Situation Example Watch Out For
Subject comes after the verb Throughout Mammoth Cave National Park run passages covering over 367 miles. Who or what runs? The passages do. Even though you might be tempted to think “Mammoth Cave National Park” is the subject, it is not doing the action of the verb. Since “passages” is plural, it must match up to a plural verb.

Deciding If Relative Pronouns Take a Singular or Plural Verb

Relative pronouns, such as who, which, that, and one of, are singular or plural based on the pronoun’s antecedent. You have to look at the antecedent of the relative clause to know whether to use a singular or plural verb.

Deciding If Relative Pronouns Take a Singular or Plural Verb
Situation Example Watch Out For
Relative pronoun that is singular The Organ, which rises up seven hundred feet, is so named for its resemblance to a pipe organ. The word “organ” is singular and is the antecedent for “which.” So the word “which” is also singular. The word “which” is the subject for the relative clause “which rises up seven hundred feet” and, therefore, requires a singular verb (rises).
Relative pronoun that is plural Arches National Park in Utah offers sites that mesmerize the most skeptical people. The word “sites” is plural and is the antecedent for “that.” The word “that” is the subject for the relative clause “that mesmerize the most skeptical people.” So “that” is plural in this case and requires a plural verb (mesmerize).

Matching Singular Subjects to Gerunds and Infinitives

Gerunds are nouns formed by adding –ing to a verb. Gerunds can combine with other words to form gerund phrases, which function as subjects in sentences. Gerund phrases are always considered singular. The concept of gerunds, nouns created from verbs is tricky, and the following video goes more in-depth to explain the idea:

Two Minute Teacher – Gerunds

Infinitives are the “to” forms of verbs, such as to run and to sing. Infinitives can be joined with other words to form an infinitive phrase. These phrases can serve as the subject of a sentence. Like gerund phrases, infinitive phrases are always singular. The following video explains the concept of infinitives in more depth:

Infinitives (Phrases) – 2 Minute Teacher

The table down below explains how to create subject-verb agreement with gerund and infinitive phrases.

subject-verb agreement with gerund and infinitive phrases.
Situation Example Watch Out For
Gerund phrase as singular subject Veering off the paths is not recommended on the steep hills of Acadia National Park. Don’t be fooled by the fact that “paths” is plural. The subject of this sentence is the whole gerund phrase, which is considered to be singular. So a singular verb is needed.
Infinitive phrase as singular subject To restore Acadia National Park after the 1947 fire was a Rockefeller family mission. All words in an infinitive phrase join together to create a singular subject.

Recognizing Singular Subjects That Look Plural and Then Choosing a Verb

Some subjects appear plural when they are actually singular. Some of these same subjects are plural in certain situations, so you have to pay close attention to the whole sentence.

Recognizing Singular Subjects
Situation Example Watch Out For
Singular subjects that look plural Politics plays a part in determining which areas are named as national parks. Many subjects are or can be singular, but look plural, such as athletics, mathematics, mumps, physics, politics,statistics, and news. Take care when matching verbs to these subjects.
A subject that looks plural, and is sometimes singular and sometimes plural State and national politics sway Congress during national park designation talks. Just because words such as “politics” can be singular doesn’t mean that they always are. In this case, the adjectives “state and national” clarify that different sources of politics are involved (“state politics” and “national politics”), so “politics” is plural in this case.

Adapted from “Grammar” in Writer’s Handbook, 2012, used according to Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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