In this post, we tackle one of the most fundamental aspects of English grammar: subject-verb agreement. Whether you're writing your first English essay or honing your speaking skills, subject-verb agreement plays a crucial role in conveying your thoughts accurately. It seems simple enough - the subject of a sentence must always agree with its verb. But as with all things English grammar, there's more than meets the eye.
What is Subject-Verb Agreement?
At its core, subject-verb agreement is the principle that the subject of a sentence and its verb must be in the same 'number'. A singular subject requires a singular verb, and a plural subject needs a plural verb.
For instance, consider the sentence, "The cat purrs." Here, 'the cat' is a singular subject that agrees with the singular verb 'purrs'.
In contrast, "The cats purr" features a plural subject, 'the cats', which rightly agrees with the plural verb 'purr'.
Understanding Singular and Plural Verbs
English language learners often grapple with distinguishing between singular and plural verbs. In the present tense, singular verbs typically end in 's' or 'es', whereas plural verbs do not. For instance, 'reads' is the singular form of the verb 'read', and 'flies' is the singular form of 'fly'.
Here are a few examples:
- She reads a book every day. (singular subject and verb)
- They read a book every day. (plural subject and verb)
In past tense, however, the verb form remains the same for both singular and plural subjects.
- She read a book yesterday. (singular subject and verb)
- They read a book yesterday. (plural subject and verb)
Special Cases in Subject-Verb Agreement
However, every grammar rule has its exceptions. Let's examine some trickier cases in subject-verb agreement that often confuse English learners.
1. Indefinite Pronouns
Indefinite pronouns such as 'everyone', 'each', 'nobody', 'anyone', 'someone', etc., always take a singular verb.
- Everyone loves a good book.
- Nobody is at the door.
2. Collective Nouns
Collective nouns such as 'team', 'group', 'band', 'family', etc., can take a singular or plural verb based on whether the group is considered a single unit or individuals acting separately.
- The team wins the match. (The team is acting as a unit.)
- The team argue among themselves about the next strategy. (The team members are acting individually.)
3. Fractions and Percentages
With fractions and percentages, the verb agrees with the quantity they're referring to.
- Half of the pie is gone. (Pie is singular.)
- Fifty percent of the students are studying. (Students are plural.)
4. Quantities and Measurements
Quantities and measurements, when considered as a single entity, take a singular verb.
- Ten miles is a long distance to run.
- Five years is the maximum penalty for the offense.
In these instances, 'ten miles' and 'five years' are considered one entity, hence the singular verb.
5. Titles or Names
Titles or names of books, movies, or other works plural in form take a singular verb because they're considered a single entity.
- "Pride and Prejudice" is my favorite novel.
- "The Beatles" is a well-known band.
Here, 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'The Beatles' are treated as singular entities, thus requiring a singular verb.
6. Subjects Joined by 'And'
When two or more subjects are joined by 'and', they typically require a plural verb.
- John and Mary are at the concert.
However, a singular verb is used when subjects joined by 'and' refer to the same person or thing.
- Peanut butter and jelly is my favorite sandwich.
In this sentence, 'peanut butter and jelly' refers to one type of sandwich, so a singular verb is used.
7. Subjects Joined by 'Or' or 'Nor'
When two or more subjects are joined by 'or' or 'nor', the verb agrees with the subject closer to it.
- Neither the coach nor the players are satisfied.
- Either the pencil or the pens are in the drawer.
In the first sentence, 'players' is closer to the verb 'are', hence using the plural form. In the second sentence, 'pens' is closer to 'are', hence the plural form again.
8. Subordinate Clauses
Sometimes, confusion arises when a phrase or clause between the subject and verb makes it challenging to discern whether a singular or plural verb is necessary. Always remember, the verb agrees with the subject, not with a noun or pronoun in the phrase.
- The girl with all the dogs walks down the street.
Here, 'girl' is the subject, so 'walks', a singular verb, is used, despite the plural noun 'dogs' appearing closer to the verb.