Subject Verb Agreement

What Is Subject-Verb Agreement?

Subject-verb agreement just means using the right version of the verb to agree with the subject. For example:

If you use the term "verb conjugation," your mates will probably think you're bit of brainbox, but it just means "how verbs change to agree with their subjects."

It's really simple. If you're a native English speaker, you'll naturally ensure your verbs agree with their subjects (i.e., conjugate correctly). Here's an example:

SubjectConjugation of the Verb
To Be
Iam
Youare
He / She / Itis
Weare
Youare
Theyare

That was the verb to be. Most other verbs are even easier:

SubjectConjugation of the Verb
To Play
Iplay
You play
He / She / Itplays
We play
You play
They play

It is a simple concept, but, sometimes, it's difficult to know whether your subject is singular or plural. In other words, should you be using a singular verb (like is and plays) or should you be using a plural one (like are and play)? Below is a summary of the areas which cause the most problems:

Someone and Anyone Take Singular Verbs



The indefinite pronouns anyone, each, everyone, no one, nobody, and someone are singular. For example:

  • No one knows what he can do till he tries. (Publilius Syrus, circa 100 BC)
  • I hope that while so many people are out smelling the flowers, someone is taking the time to plant some. (Herbert Rappaport)
  • The supreme irony of life is that hardly anyone gets out of it alive. (Robert Heinlein, 1907-1988)
  • Nobody is ever met at the airport when beginning a new adventure. (Elizabeth Warnock Fernea)
That all seems pretty straightforward. However, if you have to use a possessive adjective (e.g., his, her) in the same sentence, problems start to arise. Look at this example:

  • If anyone goes to a psychiatrist, he ought to have his head examined.
What if the person isn't male? The English language doesn't handle this very well. This is covered more in the Beware section on the right.

All and Some Can Take a Singular or a Plural Verb



The indefinite pronouns all, any, more, most, and some are singular when they refer to something singular (i.e., a non-countable noun) but plural when they refer to something plural (i.e., a countable noun). For example:

  • All of the bread has been stolen.
  • All of the biscuits have been stolen.
  • My theory is that all of Scottish cuisine is based on a dare. (Mike Myers)
  • Some of the worst mistakes of my life have been haircuts. (Jim Morrison, 1943-1971)

Number Of Takes a Plural Verb...Most of the Time



If it helps, you can think of number as following the same rules as all and some (see above). Therefore, the term a number of will nearly always be plural because the object of the preposition of (i.e., the word that follows it) will be plural. For example:

  • A number of men were strongly opposed to the changes.
  • Lee, a number of cakes have been stolen from the buffet.
Beware though because number can be a singular noun referring to an arithmetical value.

  • The number of women was sixty-four.
  • The number of women were sixty-four.

Terms Like Half Of, the Majority Of, and a Percentage Of Can Be Singular or Plural



Expressions such as half of, a part of, a percentage of, a proportion of , and a majority of are singular when they refer to something singular but plural when they refer to something plural. For example:

  • Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time. (E. B. White, 1899-1985)
  • Half of the world knows not how the other half lives. (George Herbert, 1593-1633)
  • Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation. (Henry Kissinger)
  • My guess is that well over 80 percent of the human race goes without having a single original thought. (H. L. Mencken, 1880-1956)

None Can Take a Singular or Plural Verb



The indefinite pronoun none can be singular or plural. However, be aware that treating none as plural might irk some of your readers as many people believe none can only be singular. For example:

  • None of the team is ready.
  • None of the team are ready.
Here's a tip: If your none translates best as not one of, then treat it as singular. If it translates best as not any of, then treat it as plural. If this doesn't work for your example, then try to treat it as singular. If, however, that just sounds wrong, be brave and go for plural.

Also, keep an eye out for the his/her/their issue. Look at this example:

  • None of the team has polished their boots.
Try to avoid mixing singular verbs and plural possessive pronouns. As covered in the Beware section on the right, the English language doesn't cope with this very well, but as you often have the choice whether to treat none as singular or plural, you can avoid this failing. For example, write this instead:

  • None of the team have polished their boots.

The Words after As Well As Are Not Part of the Subject



The words which follow terms like as well as, along with, and together with are not part of the subject. They do not compound the subject like and does. For example:

  • The king along with his sons is visiting tomorrow.
  • The king and his sons are visiting tomorrow.

Either and Neither Are Singular



The pronouns either and neither take singular verbs. This often causes confusion because they naturally refer to two things. For example:

  • I'm not keen on beef or lamb, but either is preferable to tofu.
  • Neither of the sisters is eligible to attend.

Or Does Not Conjoin



Unlike and, the conjunctions or and nor do not conjoin. For example:

  • The king or his daughter is visiting tomorrow.
  • The king and his daughter are visiting tomorrow.
  • Neither the king nor his daughter are visiting tomorrow.
  • (should be is)
  • It's very tasty as it is. Neither salt nor pepper is required.
The pairings either/or and neither/nor demand a singular verb when both elements (shown in blue below) are singular, but a plural verb when one of them is plural. For example:

  • Either the king or the queen is coming to present the awards.
  • (The elements (shown in blue) are both singular. Therefore, the verb is singular.)
  • Neither cakes nor chocolate are going to give you the nutrients you need.
  • (Here, one of the elements (cakes) is plural. Therefore, the verb is plural.)
Let's call that the "Mathematical Rule."

You should also be aware that there is a well-followed rule called the Proximity Rule, which offers different guidance. Under the Proximity Rule, the verb is determined by the nearest element to the verb. For example:

  • Neither cakes nor chocolate is going to give you the nutrients you need.
  • (Here, the nearest element (chocolate) is singular. Therefore, the verb is singular. Under the "Mathematical Rule," this would be wrong as cakes is plural.)
You can follow the "Mathematical Rule" or the Proximity Rule. You should adopt whatever convention those around you do. If you can't find such guidance, then pick one of the conventions and be consistent.

Here's a good tip: often, you can edit your words so you adhere to both rules. For example:

  • Neither chocolate nor cakes are going to give you the nutrients you need. ("Mathematical Rule") (Proximity Rule)

Beware Modifiers Getting between the Subject and the Verb



Sometimes modifiers (shown in blue) will get between a subject and its verb, but you must not let these words interfere with the subject-verb agreement.

  • A crate of sardines is more expensive than I thought.
  • Simon, who is the oldest of the four brothers and who, just as he did before last year's contest, has been suffering back spasms, is expected to take the first leg.
  • A container of nuts and bolts were found in the cellar.
  • (Container is singular. It should be was.)

A List of Words That Cause Confusion



The words listed below often cause singular/plural confusion.

WordSingular or Plural?
AgendaSingular
(even though it is the plural of agendum)
Read more about agenda being singular.
CriteriaPlural
(Unlike data and agendum, criteria has retained its plural status because the singular criterion is still in common usage.)
Read more about criteria being plural.
DataSingular nowadays
(even though it is the plural of datum)
Read more about data being singular.
GlassesPlural
(Note: Pair of glasses is singular.)
MeaslesSingular
MediaSingular or Plural
(Treat media like a collective noun as opposed to the plural of medium.)
NewsSingular
PliersPlural
(Note: Pair of pliers is singular.)
ScissorsPlural
(Note: Pair of scissors is singular.)
UnderpantsPlural
(Note: Pair of underpants is singular.)

Collective Nouns Can be Singular or Plural



A collective noun is a word that represents a group (e.g., board, team, jury). A collective noun can be singular or plural depending on the sense of the sentence. Look at these two examples.

  • The jury is late returning to the courtroom.
  • (singular – considered as one unit)
  • The jury are all wearing different coloured shirts.
  • (plural – considered as individuals)
Often, it's difficult to make a decision on whether to opt for singular or plural. A good trick is to precede your collective noun with words like members of…, forcing you to go plural. For example:

  • The members of the jury are late returning to the courtroom.

The Term More Than One Is Singular!



The expression more than one takes a singular verb. For example:

  • More than one person was involved in this robbery.
  • More than one swallow does a summer make, doesn't it?
  • All I can say is that more than one of you have promised to return after the break.

The Positive Element Governs the Verb



When a subject is made up of a positive element and a negative element, the positive one governs the verb. For example:

  • The CEO not the board members makes the final decision.
  • (Positive element: CEO / Negative element: board members)
  • The kitchen has confirmed that the fish not the prawns was responsible for the vomiting outbreak.
  • (Positive element: fish / Negative element: prawns)
 
BE CAREFUL WITH EACH

The word each is often used in a prepositional phrase (e.g., each of the cars, each of the boxes). If this preposition phrase is the subject, don't be fooled by the plural words (cars and boxes). The word each is the subject, and the verb must be singular. For example:

  • Each of the guide dogs is assigned a trainer.
HIS, HER, OR THEIR? (ENGLISH DOESN'T HANDLE THIS VERY WELL)

Look at this sentence:

  • Anyone who forgets his passport will be sent home.
What if the people being addressed aren't all male? You'd have to say this:

  • Anyone who forgets his or her passport will be sent home.
But, that's really clumsy. So, lots of people opt for this:

  • Anyone who forgets their passport will be sent home.
Now, that sounds okay, but it's actually a grammar mistake. We know that anyone is singular. Therefore, we can't use their, which is one of the possessive adjectives used for plurals.

So, what’s the answer? English doesn't handle this very well, and there is no set answer. You have to make a decision. Here are the options:

  • Use his and hope your readers understand it means his and her.
  • (This is common in formal writing. Sometimes, documents state at the start that his means his or her.)
  • Use his and her and take the failing of English on the chin.
  • (This is safe, but it's messy.)
  • Use their and blame the English language if anyone picks you up for it.
  • (This is becoming increasingly acceptable. It's already acceptable in informal writing. Before long, this will be allowable in formal writing too.)
THERE'S NO SUCH WORD AS HIR…YET

The online blogging community has, with tongue in cheek, introduced the gender-neuter possessive adjective hir. This appears a lot in online forums. We're not advocates for hir, but our language is missing that part of speech.

THE FINAL WORD

Our advice? Go for their in informal texts and his in formal texts. Better still, reword your sentence to avoid the issue. For example

  • Anyone who forgets their passport will be sent home.
  • If you forget your passport, you will be sent home.
 

See also:

Are collective nouns singular or plural?
Singular or plural verbs after prepositional phrases (e.g. a box of tapes)
Amount, quantity and number