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Subject-Verb Agreement

Agreement means that two or more words must correspond with each other in order to make proper sense of a sentence. For example, the gender and number of a pronoun or possessive adjective must match the gender and number of the noun it refers to. If you wish to say that a man wants to wear a new shirt he just bought, you would say the following.

  • John is putting on his new shirt. (MASCULINE SINGULAR SUBJECT / MASCULINE SINGULAR POSSESSIVE ADJECTIVE)

That meaning is lost if you change the gender or number of either the subject or the possessive adjective.

  • Mary is putting on his new shirt.
  • John is putting on our new shirt.
  • The boys are putting on my new shirt.

The rules of agreement do not mean that these three examples are incorrect—they could be. But in this case, they are not, because the desired meaning is that a man wants to wear a new shirt he just bought: “He puts on his own shirt.”

In subject-verb agreement in the third person, the difference between a singular and a plural subject is important. In most cases, a plural subject has a different present-tense verb ending from a singular subject.

  • The boy plays tag in the street.
  • The boys play tag in the street.
  • She learns a lot about English.
  • They learn a lot about English.

When the auxiliary have is used in the present perfect tense, there is also a difference between the singular and the plural.

  • My brother has been in Ireland for two weeks.
  • My parents have been in Ireland for two weeks.

Using a singular verb with a singular subject and a plural verb with a plural subject is essential for writing and speaking correctly in English.

Subject-verb agreement is essential, no matter what type of verb is involved. When auxiliaries are used, they must be conjugated to agree with the subject of the sentence.

  • A child is playing in the garden.
  • Many children are playing in the park.
  • Does the woman understand English?
  • Do the tourists understand French?

Be is the only English verb that has more than two forms in the simple present tense, which means that agreement involves more than third-person singular and plural forms.

PRESENT SINGULARPRESENT PLURAL
FIRST PERSONI amwe are
SECOND PERSONyou areyou are
THIRD PERSONhe/she/it isthey are

In the past tense, it has two forms.

PAST SINGULARPAST PLURAL
FIRST PERSONI waswe were
SECOND PERSONyou wereyou were
THIRD PERSONhe/she/it wasthey were

If the subject of the verb be is a noun, the third-person form of the verb is used.

  • The boy is at school.
  • Mary and Jane were named co-chairpersons.

For many expressions of quantity, the verb form is determined by the noun or pronoun that follows the word of. If the phrase some of or most of is followed by a singular noun or pronoun, the verb form is singular.

  • Some of the icing is runny.
  • Most of the equipment was sold.

But if these phrases—as well as many of—are followed by a plural noun, the verb form is plural.

  • Some of the movies are good.
  • Most of these people were in need of help.
  • Many of these people are my friends.

This concept applies to many other expressions of quantity.

  • One third of this land is mine.
  • Two thirds of the diamonds are mine.
  • A number of people miss the bus.

If the number is used instead of a number in such an expression, the verb form is singular, because a specific number is being referred to.

  • The number of people on the bus is 52. (52 is the number of people.)
  • The number of people at the bar is 22. (22 is the number of people.)

Similarly, expressions with one of, each of, and every one of take a singular verb form.

  • One of my parents is about to get here.
  • Each one of my children is here.
  • Every one of my cousins is here.

In very formal English, subjects with none of are singular, but it is common to hear none of used with a plural verb in casual speech.

FORMALNone of the boys is here.
CASUALNone of the boys are here.

The expressions there is and there are are singular and plural, respectively. The noun or pronoun that follows such an expression determines whether the verb is singular or plural.

  • There is a man standing in the parkway.
  • There are men standing in the parkway.
  • There is someone I want you to meet.

Occasionally, a noun ending in -s is singular. This is especially true of collective nouns and noun phrases that are considered indivisible units.

  • The United States is an important country.
  • The news is televised.
  • The Maldives consists of 26 atolls.
  • The United Nations has five principal administrative bodies.
  • Macy’s is a department store.
  • Physics is a science.

Note that if such a noun is changed to a pronoun, the singular pronoun it is used. This is because the noun is considered singular: The United Nations is one unit and is therefore replaced by it and not by they or them.

This same concept can be applied to expressions of timedistance, and money.

  • Ten hours of flying is too long.
  • Thirty miles is the exact distance from here to there.
  • Fifty dollars is too expensive.

Note, however, that the nouns people and police are plural and take plural verb forms.

  • All those people are trapped inside their homes.
  • The police have intervened swiftly.

Finally, there are several adjectives preceded by the that are used as plural nouns.

  • The old are not well taken care of in this country.
  • The rich keep getting richer.
  • The wrongly accused deserve justice.
  • The injured and wounded lie about the battlefield.

Following is a list of other adjectives that are used as plural nouns.

  • the blind
  • the dead
  • the deaf
  • the handicapped
  • the living
  • the young

If a verb phrase contains an auxiliary verb, it is the auxiliary verb, and no other verbal element, that must agree with the subject of the sentence. Examples with the auxiliary be follow.

SINGULARPLURAL
he is singingthey are singing
he is punishedthey are punished
he is used to itthey are used to it
he is to be freedthey are to be freed
he was speakingthey were speaking
he was found guiltythey were found guilty

Examples with the auxiliary have follow.

SINGULARPLURAL
he has learnedthey have learned
he has been joggingthey have been jogging
he has been arrestedthey have been arrested
he had been hurryingthey had been hurrying

Examples with the auxiliary do follow.

SINGULARPLURAL
Does he understand?Do they understand?
He does not understand.They do not understand.
He did not care.They did not care.

No matter how complicated the verb phrase is, only the auxiliary verb form agrees with the subject of the sentence. The other elements of the phrase remain the same.

A dependent clause is called a relative clause when it begins with who, which, or that. When one of these words is immediately followed by a verb phrase, the relative pronoun (who, which, that) becomes the subject of the clause. Consider the following examples.

  • The man, who was walking down the street, was poor.
  • Peter usually eats macaroni and cheese, which is his favorite dish.
  • Do you see the plane that is flying away?

If who, which, or that is the subject of the relative clause, the verb must reflect the number of that subject: singular or plural. If the antecedent of who, which, or that is singular, the relative pronoun is singular. If the antecedent is plural, the relative pronoun is plural. And in both instances, the verb will agree with the number of the antecedent and relative pronoun.

SINGULAR ANTECEDENTPLURAL ANTECEDENT
The boy, who is throwing stones, is going to break a window.The boys, who are throwing stones, are going to break a window.
The car, which is being built in Detroit, has GPS as a standard feature.The cars, which are being built in Detroit, have GPS as a standard feature.
John found a pen that is made of silver.Mary found two pens that are made of silver.

While who, which, or that can be the subject of the relative clause, whose cannot be a subject. In this case, the subject of the clause is the noun that immediately follows whose.

  • He is the architect whose mother comes from a poor country.

In this sentence, the subject of the relative clause is mother and the verb is comes, the third-person singular form that agrees with the singular noun mother. It is possible for whose to be used with a plural subject.

  • He is the architect whose parents come from a poor country.

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