SB3: Making Sure Subjects and Verbs Agree

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Locate subjects and verbs in sentences.
  2. Determine whether subjects and verbs agree in number and person.
  3. Write sentences with proper agreement between the subjects and verbs.

By the time you reach college, you probably have a fairly well-developed sense of whether a sentence sounds right. For that reason, it is a good idea to include reading your drafts aloud as part of your editing process. Or better yet, ask a friend to read your draft to you. It may be surprising to see how easy it is to hear errors versus reading them.

One key grammar rule that affects the sound of a sentence subject-verb agreement. To be grammatically correct, subjects and verbs must agree in number and person. Agreeing in number means that a plural subject is matched up with the plural form of the verb. Although the plural of a noun often ends in –s, it is the singular of a verb that usually ends in –s.

Subject-verb agreement | Syntax | Khan Academy

Examples

  • –The rabbit hops all around the cage. (singular subject and verb)
  • –The rabbits hop all around the cage. (plural subject and verb)

Agreeing in person means, for example, a third-person noun must be matched with the proper third-person verb. The chart below shows first, second, and third person for a few present-tense verbs. As you can see, most of the verbs are the same in all columns except for the third-person singular. The verb “to be” at the bottom also varies in the first-person singular column. So to match subjects and verbs by person, you could choose, for example, to say “I am,” but not “I are.”

Table SB3.1 A Few Present-Tense Verbs

Table SB3.1 A Few Present-Tense Verbs
First-Person Singular: I First-Person Plural: We Second-Person Singular: You Second-Person Plural: You Third-Person Singular: He, She, It Third-Person Plural: They
walk walk walk walk walks walk
laugh laugh laugh laugh laughs laugh
rattle rattle rattle rattle rattles rattle
fall fall fall fall falls fall
think think think think thinks think
am are are are is are

Examples

–The window rattles when the wind blows. (third-person subject and verb)

–I think I am a funny person. (first-person subject and verb)

Each of the following sentences represents a common type of agreement error. An explanation and a correction of the error follow each example:

  1. Pete and Tara is siblings.

A subject that includes the word “and” usually takes a plural verb even if the two nouns are singular.

–The sentence should read “Pete and Tara are siblings.”


  1. Biscuits and gravy are my favorite breakfast.

Sometimes the word and connects two words that form a subject and are actually one thing. In this case, “biscuits and gravy” is one dish. So even though there are two nouns connected by the word “and,” it is a singular subject and should take a singular verb.

–The sentence should read “Biscuits and gravy is my favorite breakfast.”


  1. The women who works here are treated well.

Relative pronouns (that, who, and which) can be singular or plural, depending on their antecedents (the words they stand for). The pronoun has the same number as the antecedent. In this case, “who” stands for “women” and “women” is plural, so the verb should be plural.

–The sentence should read “The women who work here are treated well.”


  1. One of the girls sing in the chorus.

A singular subject is separated by a phrase that ends with a plural noun. This pattern leads people to think that the plural noun (“girls” in this case) is the subject to which they should match the verb. But in reality, the verb (“sing”) must match the singular subject (“one”).

–The sentence should read “One of the girls sings in the chorus.”


  1. The data is unclear.

The words “data” and “media” are both considered plural at all times when used in academic writing. In more casual writing, some people use a singular version of the two words.

–The sentence should read “The data are unclear.”


  1. The basketball players with the most press this month is the college men playing in the Final Four tournament.

In some sentences, like this one, the verb comes before the subject. The word order can cause confusion, so you have to find the subject and verb and make sure they match.

–The sentence should read “The basketball players with the most press this month are the college men playing in the Final Four tournament.”


  1. I is ready to go.

A subject and verb must agree in person. In this case, “I” is a first-person noun, but “is” is a third-person verb.

–The sentence should read “I am ready to go.”


  1. What we think are that Clyde Delber should resign immediately.

Words that begin with “what” can take either a singular or a plural verb depending on whether “what” is understood as singular or plural. In this case, “we” collectively think one thing, so the verb should be singular even though “we” is plural.

–The sentence should read “What we think is that Clyde Delber should resign immediately.”


  1. Either the dog or the cats spends time on this window seat when I’m gone.

The word “or” usually indicates a singular subject even though you see two nouns. This sentence is an exception to this guideline because at least one of the subjects is plural. When this happens, the verb should agree with the subject to which it is closest.

–The sentence should read “Either the dog or the cats spend time on this window seat when I’m gone.”


  1. Molly or Huck keep the books for the club, so one of them will know.

The word “or” usually indicates a singular subject even though you see two nouns. An exception to this guideline is that if one of the subjects is plural, the verb should agree with the subject to which it is closest.

–The sentence should read “Molly or Huck keeps the books for the club, so one of them will know.


  1. The wilderness scare me when I think of going out alone.

When a singular noun ends with an -s, you might get confused and think it is a plural noun.

–The sentence should read “The wilderness scares me when I think of going out alone.”


  1. Each of the girls are happy to be here.

Indefinite pronouns (anyone, each, either, everybody, and everyone) are always singular. So they have to always be used with singular verbs.

–The sentence should read “Each of the girls is happy to be here.”


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

Back to: Grammar and Sentence Construction Handbook > Unit 2: Sentence Building