This is “Making Sure Subjects and Verbs Agree”, section 15.3 from the book Writers' Handbook (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. You may also download a PDF copy of this book (17 MB) or just this chapter (120 KB), suitable for printing or most e-readers, or a .zip file containing this book's HTML files (for use in a web browser offline).

Has this book helped you? Consider passing it on:
Creative Commons supports free culture from music to education. Their licenses helped make this book available to you.
DonorsChoose.org helps people like you help teachers fund their classroom projects, from art supplies to books to calculators.

15.3 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. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons why you should get into the habit of reading your drafts aloud before you submit them for peer or instructor review. Or better yet, ask a friend to read your draft back to you. You’ll be surprised how many careless errors you catch just from hearing them.

One key aspect that can make a sentence sound incorrect is if the subject and verb do not agree. In properly written sentences, the 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.

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. This chart 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 15.2 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

It 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.”

  2. 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.”

  3. The women who works here are treated well.

    Relative pronounsWord used to introduce a subordinate clause (e.g., that, what, which, who). (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.”

  4. 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.”

  5. 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.”

  6. 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.”

  7. 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.”

  8. 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.”

  9. 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.”

  10. 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.

  11. 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.”

  12. 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.”

Key Takeaways

  • You have to be able to identify the subject and verb within a sentence to know for sure that they agree.
  • Some sentence formats make it easy to choose an incorrect verb. Knowing these types of sentence formats can help you be alert so you can avoid these common problems.
  • Since a surprisingly high percentage of agreement errors come from carelessness and a failure to proofread, you should get into the habit of reading your drafts aloud to listen for constructions that don’t sound right.

Exercises

  1. Write one sentence showing the correct use of each of the guidelines presented in the tips within this section. (twelve total sentences)
  2. Mark the subject and verb in each of the following sentences. Then identify the number and person for each subject/verb combination.

    1. We remember them every year at this time.
    2. The media are hungry for anything that sells news.
    3. You dance like someone who has had a lot of training.
    4. Denver or Salt Lake City sells the most of our ice sculptures each year.
    5. I, of all your siblings, am least likely to judge you.
  3. These sentences have number errors, person errors, or both. Rewrite each sentence so that it is error free.

    1. The people in the town supports the local theater.
    2. Five cups are enough for a double recipe.
    3. Anna and Jonah runs after classes each day.
    4. The luckiest group was the math students who took the test first hour.
    5. Everybody are glad to help in a situation like this one.