Subject-Verb Agreement

by Craig Shrives
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What Is Subject-Verb Agreement?

Subject-verb agreement means that a singular subject is matched with a singular verb or that a plural subject is matched with a plural verb. For example:
  • My box is under the stairs. correct tick
  • (Here, the singular subject "box" is matched with the singular verb "is." This is an example of subject-verb agreement.)
  • My boxes are under the stairs. correct tick
  • (The plural subject "boxes" is matched with the plural verb "are." This is another example of subject-verb agreement.)
Look at this example though:
  • My box of toys are under the stairs. wrong cross
  • (Here, the phrase "box of toys" (which is singular because of "box") has confused the writer, who has matched it with a plural verb. This is an example of an error with subject-verb agreement.)
Later in this lesson, we will discuss 13 issues that cause errors with subject-verb agreement.

subject verb agreement

More about Subject-Verb Agreement

Subject-verb agreement is linked to "verb conjugation." Verb conjugation just means "how a verb changes to agree with various subjects." For example, here are the conjugations of the verb "to be" and "to play" in the present tense:
SubjectConjugation of "To Be"Conjugation of "To Play"
Iamplay
youareplay
he / she / itisplays
weareplay
youareplay
theyareplay
So, when you match "I" with "am" or "he" with "plays," they are examples of subject-verb agreement.

Subject-Verb Agreement Mistakes

Even though subject-verb agreement is a simple concept, sometimes, it is difficult to know whether your subject is singular or plural. In other words, it is not always easy to know whether you should be using a singular verb (e.g., "is" and "plays") or a plural one (e.g., "are" and "play").

Below are 13 issues that cause problems with subject-verb agreement. In all of these examples, the subject is shaded and the verb is in bold.

(Issue 1) "Someone" and "Anyone" Take Singular Verbs

subject-verb agreement, someone is singular
The indefinite pronouns "anyone," "each," "everyone," "no one," "nobody," and "someone" are singular. For example:
  • I hope that while so many people are out smelling the flowers, someone is taking the time to plant some. (Screenwriter Herbert Rappaport) correct tick
  • The supreme irony of life is that hardly anyone gets out of it alive. (Author Robert Heinlein) correct tick
  • Nobody is ever met at the airport when beginning a new adventure. (Author Elizabeth Warnock Fernea) correct tick
Be careful. Look at these examples:
  • No one knows what he can do till he tries. (Latin writer Publilius Syrus) correct tick
  • (Why "he"?)
  • If anyone goes to a psychiatrist, he ought to have his head examined. correct tick
  • (Why "his"?)
  • Anyone who forgets his passport will be sent home. correct tick
  • (Why "his"?)
If you have to use a possessive determiner (e.g., "his," "her") in the same sentence, problems start to arise. What if the person isn't male? The English language doesn't handle this well, but here are two options:
  • Anyone who forgets his or her passport will be sent home. correct tick
  • (This is acceptable, but it's clumsy)
  • Anyone who forgets their passport will be sent home. correct tick
  • (Even though, "their" is plural. This is considered preferable to using "his" or "his or her." It is called a "singular they/their.")
Read more about the "singular they/their."

(Issue 2) "All" and "Some" Can Take a Singular or a Plural Verb

subject-verb agreement, all and some singular or plural?
The indefinite pronouns "all," "any," "more," "most," and "some" are singular when they refer to something singular but plural when they refer to something plural. For example:
  • All of the bread has been stolen. correct tick
  • ("Bread" is singular, so "all" is treated as singular.)
  • All of the cakes have been stolen. correct tick
  • ("Cakes" is plural, so "all" is treated as plural.)
  • My theory is that all of Scottish cuisine is based on a dare. (Actor Mike Myers) correct tick
  • ("Cuisine" is singular, so "all" is treated as singular.)
  • Some of the worst mistakes of my life have been haircuts. (Singer Jim Morrison) correct tick
  • ("Mistakes" is plural, so "some" is treated as plural.)

(Issue 3) "Number Of" Takes a Plural Verb...Most of the Time

Is number singular or plural
If it helps, you can think of "number" as following the same rules as "all" and "some" (see Issue 2 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. correct tick
  • Lee, a number of cakes have been stolen from the buffet. correct tick
Beware though because "number" can be a singular noun referring to an arithmetical value.
  • The number of women was sixty-four. correct tick
  • The number of women were sixty-four. wrong cross

(Issue 4) Terms Like "Half Of," "the Majority Of," and "a Percentage Of" Can Be Singular or Plural

Is half of 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. (Author E. B. White) correct tick
  • Half of the world knows not how the other half lives. (Poet George Herbert) correct tick
  • Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation. (Politician Henry Kissinger) correct tick
  • My guess is that well over 80 percent of the human race goes without having a single original thought. (Journalist H. L. Mencken) correct tick

(Issue 5) "None" Can Take a Singular or Plural Verb

Is none singular or plural?
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. correct tick
  • None of the team are ready. correct tick
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 the singular version sounds wrong, be brave and go for plural.

Also, keep an eye out for the problem with "his/her/their" (see Issue 1 above). Look at this example:
  • None of the team has polished their boots.
  • (This acceptable, but it's untidy.)
As you often have the choice whether to treat "none" as singular or plural, you can avoid this untidiness.
  • None of the team have polished their boots. correct tick

(Issue 6) The Words after "As Well As" Are Not Part of the Subject

subject-verb agreement, along with and
The words that 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. correct tick
  • The king and his sons are visiting tomorrow. correct tick

(Issue 7) "Either" and "Neither" Are Singular

either and neither, singular or plural?
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. correct tick
  • Neither of the sisters is eligible to attend. correct tick

(Issue 8) "Or" Does Not Conjoin

subject-verb agreement with or
Unlike "and," the conjunctions "or" and " nor" do not conjoin. For example:
  • The king or his daughter is visiting tomorrow. correct tick
  • The king and his daughter are visiting tomorrow. correct tick
  • Neither the king nor his daughter are visiting tomorrow. wrong cross
  • (This should be "is.")
  • It's very tasty as it is. Neither salt nor pepper is required. correct tick
The pairings "either/or" and "neither/nor" demand a singular verb when both elements (shaded) 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. correct tick
  • (The elements (shaded) are both singular. Therefore, the verb is singular.)
  • Neither cakes nor chocolate are going to give you the nutrients you need. correct tick
  • (Here, one of the elements ("cakes") is plural. Therefore, the verb is plural.)
Let's call this the "Logic Rule." Be aware that is another 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. correct tick
  • (Here, the nearest element ("chocolate") is singular. Therefore, the verb is singular. Under the "Logic Rule," this would be wrong as "cakes" is plural.)
You can follow the "Logic Rule" or the Proximity Rule. You should adopt whatever convention those around follow. If you can't find such guidance, pick one and be consistent.

Here's a good tip: Edit your words to adhere to both rules. For example:
  • Neither chocolate nor cakes are going to give you the nutrients you need. correct tick ("Logic Rule") correct tick (Proximity Rule)
Read more about the Logic Rule and the Proximity Rule.

(Issue 9) Beware Modifiers between the Subject and the Verb

subject-verb agreement, interfering modifiers
Sometimes modifiers (shown in blue) get between a subject and its verb. Do not let these words interfere with the subject-verb agreement.
  • A crate of sardines is more expensive than I thought. correct tick
  • ("A crate" is singular. The modifiers "of sardines" does not affect the verb. Therefore, "is" is correct.)
  • 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. correct tick
  • ("Simon" agrees with "is." The modifier is long, but be sure to track back to the subject to ensure the verb agrees with it.)
  • A container of nuts and bolts were found in the cellar. wrong cross
  • ("A container" is singular. The verb should be "was." Remember that "of nuts and bolts" is just a modifier. It does not affect the verb.)

(Issue 10) A List of Words That Cause Confusion

Is data singular or plural?
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.
DataMostly singular 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.)

(Issue 11) Collective Nouns Can be Singular or Plural

subject-verb agreement, collective nouns
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. correct tick
  • (Here, "the jury" is singular because it is considered as one unit.)
  • The jury are all wearing different coloured shirts. correct tick
  • (This time, "the jury" is plural because we're focused on the individuals.)
Often, it is 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. correct tick

(Issue 12) The Term "More Than One" Is Singular!

subject-verb agreement, more than one
Somewhat counter-intuitively, the expression "more than one" takes a singular verb. For example:
  • More than one person was involved in this robbery. correct tick
  • More than one swallow does a summer make, doesn't it? correct tick
  • All I can say is that more than one of you have promised to return after the break. wrong cross

(Issue 13) The Positive Element Governs the Verb

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. correct tick
  • (Positive element is "the CEO." The negative element is "board members." The positive one is singular, hence "makes.")
  • The kitchen has confirmed that the fish not the prawns was responsible for the vomiting outbreak. correct tick
  • (The positive element is "the fish." The negative element is "the prawns." "The fish" governs the verb, hence "was.")

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