Subject-Verb Agreement

Subjects Separated from Verbs

Prepositional Phrases

Relative Pronouns

Singular or Plural Subjects

Always Singular

Always Plural

Based on Context

Either-Or or Neither-Nor

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The predicate (verb) in a sentence must agree with its subject in number. In the present tense, singular subjects must have singular verbs, and plural subjects must have plural verbs.

Generally, singular nouns take verbs which end in the letter s.

Alice goes to the store.

The bird flies south in winter.

No s for plural verbs

Plural nouns generally take verbs that do not end in s.

Alice and Michael go to the store. (They go.)

Birds fly south in winter.

Be careful not to confuse making plurals in nouns and verbs. The plural of nouns has an s. A plural verb does not have an s: They go. She goes.

Problem areas:

For most native speakers of English, subject-verb agreement is not a problem except there are a few situations which can be confusing.

Subjects Separated from Verbs

One problem arises when the subject is separated from the verb in the sentence. Usually in English, the order of ideas in a sentence is subject and then verb.

The parents are in the waiting room.

Prepositional Phrases:

Prepositional phrases can sometimes separate the subject and the verb. A prepositional phrase begins with a preposition such as in, on, at, of, and ends with the object of that preposition.

The parents of the child are in the waiting room.

The words of the child are the prepositional phrase. The word child is the object of the preposition and is not the subject of the sentence. This can cause confusion because the child is right before the verb and the ear wants to make the verb agree with the closest noun, in this case the singular noun child. However, the true subject of this sentence is still the plural noun parents, so the verb must also remain plural: parents are.

Relative Pronouns:

Another separation also occurs with relative pronouns such as who, whom, that, and which.

The parents who called Dr. Smith are in the waiting room.

To avoid making this error, always make sure you know what the true subject of the sentence is, not just the words closest to the verb: parents are.

Singular or Plural Subjects

Sometimes errors are made not because the subject was incorrectly identified, but because of confusion about whether the subject is singular or plural. One commonly confused type is the indefinite pronoun.

Always Singular:

each, either, neither, and words that end in –body or -one such as anybody or anyone

Each of the dogs was removed. Each was.

Everybody with measles is quarantined. Everybody is.

Always Plural

few, many, several, both

Both are out of the office.

Several in the room were disappointed. Several were.

Based on Context

all, any, none, most, some

All of my money is gone. All is gone. (The word All is referring to the amount of money.)

All of my bills are due. All is due. (The word All is referring to the amount of bills.)

These words can be singular or plural depending on context.

Either-Or or Neither-Nor

While either and neither alone are always single, when they are paired with an or / nor, a different rule applies. The verb agrees with the nearer part of the subject.

Either the dogs or the cat is scratching at the door. Cat is

Either the cat or the dogs are scratching at the door. Dogs are