1. What is Subject-Verb Agreement?
When writing and speaking in present tenses, the subjects and verbs in a sentence need to be in the same form, or, “agree” with each other, and that’s called subject-verb agreement (SVA). Subjects and verbs have single and plural forms, and it’s important not to mix them up. All sentences need a subject and a verb to be complete, but if they don’t match, the sentence won’t make sense!
2. Examples of Subject-Verb Agreement
Overall, subject-verb agreement is a very simple idea. For subjects and verbs to agree, the numbers need to agree.
For instance, if a person is riding a bike, you need to express that one person rides one bike. So, to write in singular, you need to add “s” to the base form of the verb:
- Sally rides her bike to school.
- Sally ride her bike to school.
Now, if Sally and Sam, or “friends,” are riding bikes, there are two or more nouns, so we use the plural form. For plural, you just use the base form of the verb (ride):
- Sally and Sam ride their bikes to school.
- Friends ride their bikes to school.
- Sally and Sam rides their bikes to school.
- Friends rides their bikes to school.
3. Rules of Subject-Verb Agreement
Present tense nouns and verbs have singular and plural forms. There are some special cases, for instance, pronouns (like I and you) have their own rules. Also, as you probably already know, the verb “to be” is special, and also has some of its own rules.
Singular subjects need singular verbs.
Singular nouns do not have an “s”, but singular verbs need an “s”
- The girl walks to work.
- A snail moves slowly.
- That cat likes sleeping.
- My sister helps other.
- Likewise, plural subjects need plural verbs.
- Plural nouns have an “s”, but plural verbs do not.
Here are some examples:
Girls walk to work.
Snails move slowly.
Cats like sleeping.
Sisters help others.
This chart can help you remember common subject-verb combinations for singulars and plurals.
|Sally and Sam (They)||love|
|The snail (It)||loves|
|The snails (They)||love|
c. Special Case: Personal Pronouns
Most words follow the normal subject-verb agreement rules—except some personal pronouns. Even though I and you are singular, they require a plural verb.
d. Special Case: the verb “to be”
As you know, the verb “to be” is special. This chart will remind you of its proper forms:
|Pronoun/Noun||Present “to be”||Past “to be”|
|The snail (it)||is||was|
|The snails (they)||are||were|
4. Types of Subject-Verb Agreement Situations
There are many types of situations where subject-verb agreement follows specific rules. Below are eight of the most common.
a. Compound subjects (two or more nouns joined by “and”) are always plural:
- Sally and Sam
walkswalk to school together.
- Carrots and peas
- Dogs and cats run fast.
- Moms and Dads teach their kids new things.
b. A compound subject made of two singular subjects joined together by “or” and “nor” (usually combine with either/neither) need singular verbs:
- Neither Sally nor Sam
riderides a bike to school.
- Neither the dog nor the cat eats fish.
- Either Sally or Sam
areis coming to help.
- Either the dog or the cat is eating the cheese.
To check for mistakes, you can leave out the first half of the subject, and the subject and verb will still agree:
Neither Sally norSam rides a bike to school. Neither the dog norThe cat eats fish.
c. When plural or mixed plural/singular subjects are in a neither/nor or either/or situations, the verb agrees with the noun or pronoun closest to it:
- Either the foxes or the rabbit likes carrots.
- Either the rabbit or foxes like carrots.
- Neither my chickens nor my duck sleeps outside.
- Neither my duck nor my chickens sleep outside.
Again, you can check this by cutting out the other half of the subject:
Either the foxes orThe rabbit likes carrots. Either the rabbit orFoxes like carrots.
d. The word “of” often causes confusion about subject-verb agreement. When you have A of B, (a box of cookies, a collection of books, groups of people, swarms of bees) the verb matches A.
- The box of cookies smells delicious.
- The boxes of cookies smell delicious.
- A collection of books is a great thing to have.
- Collections of books are great things to have.
A is the true subject, even though it contains B. To check to see if a subject and verb agrees in this situation, you can remove the “of B”, and it should sound correct:
- The box smells delicious.
- The boxes smell delicious.
e. Phrases or clauses (purple) between subjects and verbs DO NOT change the tense of the verb. It still needs to agree with the main noun of the subject:
- The dog with lots of fleas is very itchy.
- The dogs with the brown fur are very soft.
- That cup, as well as all the mugs, breaks easily.
- Those cups, as well as that mug, break easily.
To double-check this grammar situation, you can remove the phrase, and the sentence should still work:
- The dog is very itchy
- The dogs are very soft.
f. The word doesn’t (does not) can only be used with a singular subject, and the word don’t (do not) can only be used with plural subjects:
- The snail doesn’t move quickly.
- Snails don’t move quickly.
- The alligator doesn’t eat vegetables.
- Alligators don’t eat vegetables.
g. Collective nouns (groups of people) are considered singular, so they use singular verbs. But, if you break these groups down into members, THEN you need a singular verb:
- The Smith family is famous in this neighborhood.
- The kids in the Smith family are famous in this neighborhood.
- A wolf pack runs through the forest each night.
- The leaders of the wolf pack run through the forest each night.
- The local soccer team wins every game.
- Players on the local soccer team win every game.
- Town council elects the new governor.
- Members of the town council elect the new governor.
h. These special words are all singular and need singular verbs, even though some of them seem like plurals: each, each one, either, neither, everyone, everybody, anybody, anyone, nobody, somebody, someone.
- Everybody likes pizza.
- Anybody likes pizza.
- Each one likes pizza
- Neither likes pizza.
There is an exception here, for the word “each.” If “each” follows a plural noun, then it needs a plural verb, but alone “each” is singular:
- The kids each like pizza.
- They each like pizza.
- Each likes pizza.
5. How to Avoid Mistakes
The basic idea being subject-verb agreement is easy: singulars + singulars, plurals + plurals. Still, people mix them up all the time. Here are some key rules to remember when you are checking your own subject-verb agreement:
- Singular subjects must have singular verbs
- Plural subjects must have plural verbs
- Usually, a mix of singular and plural creates subject-verb disagreement.
- There are special cases where singles and plurals mix, like with personal pronouns.
- The verb “to be” is special and often changes with the subject
Let’s review with a couple more simple examples:
- My grandma likes knitting. Correct SVA
- My grandma like knitting. Incorrect SVA
- Grandmas like knitting. Correct SVA
- Grandmas likes knitting. Incorrect SVA
Here’s one last easy tip to help tell if subjects and verbs agree: Simply read the sentence out loud to yourself! When subjects and verbs disagree, it almost always sounds really awkward.