Agreement: subject-verb

We all know these meanings of “agree,” but when we talk about subject-verb agreement, we’re talking about something different: matching subjects and verbs according to number. That is, when you have a singular subject, you have to match it with a singular verb form: The boy plays. When you have a plural subject, you must have a plural verb form: The boys play.

In short, simple sentences, you should have no problem with agreement. You can hear the problem: The boys plays. When it’s wrong , it just sounds funny. However, there are four potential problem spots that you need to watch carefully:

  • stuff in between the subject and verb
  • reversed sentence order
  • “-body,” “-one,” and “-thing” words
  • “who,” “which,” and “that”
  • Stuff in between subjects and verbs

The stuff here is usually a prepositional phrase that separates the subject from the verb. Do the same thing if you’re having problems with agreement. Now, thinking about that, look at the following sentence and decide what’s wrong with it:

The dishes in the kitchen is dirty.

Good guess! The subject and the verb don’t agree. What’s the probable cause for the problem? Kitchen (a singular noun) is right in front of is (a singular verb). If kitchenwere the subject, that would be okay. But, it’s not. Cross out the prepositional phrase and you’re left with:

The dishes in the kitchen is dirty.

“The dishes . . . is dirty?” Sounds wrong, doesn’t it? The subject is plural, but the verb is singularThey don’t agree. The correct version is:

The dishes in the kitchen are dirty.

Once you know how to look for this problem, it shouldn’t be too hard to get rid of it when you proofread your paper.

Reversed sentence order

The normal pattern for English sentences is subject-verb. However, there are a few situations where this order is reversed (like this sentence):

  • There are snacks on the laundry-room table.
  • Where are they?
  • On the table are the goodies!

See how the subject comes after the verb in each of these? If you can remember how to locate subjects and verbs, you shouldn’t blunder into mistakes when writing reversed-order sentences.

“-body,” “-one,” and “-thing” words

The correct term for these words is indefinite pronouns, but if you remember them as “-body,” “-one,” and “-thing” words, you’ll probably be able to spot them more easily. You only need to know one thing: if a word has one of these endings (like everybody,everyoneanyoneanything, etc.), it is always singular! You can also include each,either, and neither in this group. Look at the following:

  1. Everyone is going on a picnic.
  2. Each of the boys is taking his own lunch.
  3. If anyone drops something to eat, I’ll grab it before he can pick it up.

You shouldn’t have problems with these if you simply memorize the endings of words that are always singular.

NOTE: We said that either and neither are always singular; however, if you have two subjects in an either . . . or or neither . . . nor construction, getting the agreement right may give you fits. To get it right, just locate the subject closest to the verb and make the verb agree with it:

  • Either the mailman or the construction workers are causing Peggy to bark like crazy.
  • Neither the dogs down the street nor the one next door pays any attention.

Compare this with the following:

  • Either the construction workers or the mailman is causing Peggy to bark like crazy.
  • Neither the one next door nor the dogs down the street pay any attention.

Agreement, in this case, depends on the placement of the subject.

“Who,” “which,” and “that”

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun that comes before it, usually in the same clause or one very close to it.

Peggy is a troublemaker. She bites my ears and steals my food.

“Who,” “which,” and “that” are pronouns. When they take the place of a singular noun, they are singular; when they take the place of a plural noun, they are pluralThis is important to remember when they are the subject of a clause. Compare the following sentences:

  1. Big Dog is one of those animals who are very intelligent.
  2. Big Dog is an animal who is very intelligent.

In both, who is the subject of a dependent clause. In number 1, it takes the place ofanimals (a plural form). That’s why “are” is the correct verb choice. In number 2, whotakes the place of animal (a singular form), and that’s why “is” is correct.

This may seem a bit confusing at first, but there’s a way to get it right every time. If you find “who,” “which,” or “that” introducing a dependent clause (like in the examples above):

  1. Look at the word right in front of it (usually that’s the word it takes the place of).
  2. Decide if the word is singular or plural (that will tell you whether “who,” “which,” or “that” is singular or plural).
  3. Make the verb agree!

That’s all there is to it!