Subject-Verb Agreement

Rules about when to use singular verbs and when to use plural verbs

What Is Subject-Verb Agreement?

Subject-verb agreement is a principle of English grammar that requires verbs to "agree" with the number (singular or plural) of their subjects. The appropriate verb form to use is determined by whether the subject is singular or plural. Generally speaking, this principle only applies to verbs in the present tense, not the past tense or the future tense. However, subject-verb agreement is more complicated than it might seem, because there are a number of different situations that can cause confusion. To make these various situations clear, I have divided my discussion of subject-verb agreement into several sections.

Note: For the sake of clarity and simplicity, only simple subjects and their verbs (not complete subjects) in the example sentences below are in boldface.

Simple Present Tense Verbs

The most basic situation involving subject-verb agreement is a clause with a concrete noun acting as the subject. With a singular subject, use the verb form with the -s or -es suffix:

Camilla laughs very loudly.

My attack turtle obeys my every command.

With a plural subject, use the verb form without the -s or -es suffix:

Camilla's friends also laugh very loudly.

My attack turtles obey my every command.

This can be a bit confusing because singular verbs take an -s or -es suffix, and singular nouns don’t have a suffix. Don’t be fooled by nouns with an irregular plural form. Figure out whether the subject is singular or plural and then use the appropriate verb form. In other words, don’t just assume that if the subject doesn’t have an -s or -es suffix, the verb should automatically have one:

That six-year-old child reads the Wall Street Journal for two hours every day.

Those children read the Wall Street Journal for two hours every day.

Those children reads the Wall Street Journal for two hours every day.

Personal Pronouns

The personal pronouns I, you, he, she, we, and they present a problem in that they don’t all follow the pattern described above.

He and she are singular, and they follow the pattern for singular subjects described above:

She laughs like a witch struck by a taser, in fact.

He also trades stocks online for an hour every morning.

We and they are plural, and they also follow the pattern described above:

We train our turtles to attack intruders.

They obey my every command.

Although I is singular, and you is often singular, they follow the pattern for plural subjects instead:

I command them to fetch beer.

You lose IQ points and faith in humanity when you read YouTube comments.

For native speakers, these rules are instinctive; we know right away that “I commands them” isn’t right. But for people who aren’t native speakers, this can be confusing, and even many native speakers don’t understand the reason why it’s wrong.

Other Pronouns

There are other pronouns that can cause confusion regarding subject-verb agreement as well.

All pronouns that end with the suffix –one or –body (including no one) are treated as singular subjects, even when they might seem to be plural:

Everybody wants to see my turtles, Slydelle and Vamaria, fetch things.

If someone helps me figure out how to train them to dance, I’ll be grateful.

Although everybody logically seems to be plural because it refers to more than one person, it is in fact singular.

All, some, and none, when used as pronouns, can be treated as singular or plural subjects, depending on the context in which they appear:

All of the time that you spend reading YouTube comments kills more of your brain cells.*

Because all is associated with the singular noun time, it is treated as a singular subject here.

All of my friends know that it's dangerous to taunt Slydelle and Vamaria.

In this sentence, all is associated with the plural noun friends, so it is treated as a plural subject.

Since the pronoun none comes from the expression “not one,” it was traditionally treated as a singular pronoun, but contemporary usage does not necessarily follow this rule:

None of my friends know (or knows) how my turtles can tell a lager from an ale or how they learned judo.*

The pronoun each is always treated as a singular subject. Think of it as being the same as “each one”:

Each (one) of my turtles has the ability to incapacitate multiple attackers.*

 

* For an explanation of why the verbs in these sentences are so far from their subjects, see my Sentence Analysis page.

To Be Verbs

The verb to be is an exception to the usual subject-verb agreement pattern. In the present tense, it has three forms:

  • is, used with singular subjects: Camilla is a voracious predator.
  • are, used with plural subjects: Waiters are impressed by her appetite.
  • am, used when “I” is the subject: I sometimes see her eat thirty chicken hearts in one sitting.

In addition, to be has singular and plural forms in the past tense:

  • was, used with singular subjects: Camilla was raised by wolves as a toddler.
  • were, used with plural subjects: We were grateful that she was able to rejoin human society.

No other verb in English has singular and plural past tense verbs.

Helping Verbs

Notice that the verb was in one of the sentences above is acting as a helping verb. In complex verb constructions, helping verbs follow the same subject-verb agreement rules as simple verbs:

Slydelle has vanquished every human challenger she has faced.

My turtles have demonstrated their prowess against judo masters.

They were presented with honorary black belts by our local dojo.

They are competing in a tournament this weekend.

Compound Subjects

Subjects joined by and (or in a longer list of items separated by commas) form compound subjects, which are always treated as plural subjects:

Slydelle and Vamaria have now developed a taste for video games.

Slydelle, Vamaria, and Camilla like to play Minecraft together.

However, there are several common expressions that seem as if they create a compound subject but actually do not: along with, apart from, as well as, besides, in addition to, together with. Because these expressions all begin prepositional phrases, any nouns that follow them are not considered part of the subject:

Slydelle, along with Vamaria, keeps our neighborhood safe from the Houston Rockets and their fans.

The subject of this sentence is only Slydelle, so the singular verb form is used.

See my Sentence Analysis page and Prepositions handout for more information about prepositional phrases.

Either/Or and Neither/Nor

When these pairs of words (and similar expressions) act as correlative conjunctions introducing two separate subjects, the subjects are not treated as a compound subject. Instead, the verb form is determined by the second subject, the one closer to the verb:

Neither my turtles nor Camilla likes watching the Houston Rockets play.

Because Camilla is the closer subject to the verb, the singular form of the verb is used, even though turtles is plural.

When not only and but also precede the subjects, the same rule is followed:

Not only Spurs fans but also any right-thinking person refuses to support the Rockets.

When either and neither are used as pronouns, they are treated as singular subjects. Think of them as meaning “either one” and “neither one”:

Neither (one) of my attack turtles allows Rockets fans to enter our home.

Separation of Subject and Verb

In identifying the subject of a clause, don’t be fooled by phrases or clauses placed between the actual subject and its verb. One rule to remember is that the subject of any clause or sentence will never be found within a prepositional phrase:

A shrine to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been constructed in the turtles' aquarium.

The alpha poodle that once ruled the streets of our neighborhood with an iron paw cowers when Slydelle and Vamaria approach.

Other examples of sentences on this page that show this kind of separation between subject and verb are marked with an asterisk.

Inverted Sentences

Although the subject comes before the verb in most English sentences, in some situations it follows the verb. One such situation occurs in sentences beginning with there or here:

There are also several German shepherds in the neighborhood that live in fear of them.

This kind of inversion can also occur in sentences that begin with prepositional phrases:

Along our sidewalk stand signs that read "Beware of Attack Turtles."

Such sentences can be reversed to make the subject easier to identify:

Signs stand along our sidewalk.

Commands

In imperative sentences (sentences that express a direct command to the person being addressed), the subject is the “understood you” that does not actually appear in the sentence:

"(You) Fetch me a Delirium Tremens, please!" I shouted to Vamaria.

Gerunds as Subjects

Gerunds (present participles, or “-ing verbs,” acting as nouns) sometimes cause confusion, because many people don’t recognize them as subjects:

Talking trash to Slydelle and Vamaria is useless; they are impervious to intimidation.

In the first clause of this sentence, the subject is talking; it is treated as a singular subject. Trash is the object of the gerund.

Likewise, asking Camilla to remember to turn off the bathroom lights usually has no effect.

What has no effect? The action of asking.

Plural gerunds are relatively rare, but they are treated as plural subjects:

Camilla's drawings of dragons are as countless as the stars.

Latin Plurals

A number of words derived from Latin that end in –a cause confusion for English speakers. Originally, such words were all plural forms, and their use as singular nouns is essentially a corruption of their logical usage. However, in some cases this use is so common and widespread that it has become accepted. Agenda, though technically a plural word (the plural form of agendum), is now completely accepted as a singular noun whose plural form is agendas. Data (the plural form of datum) is also becoming accepted as a singular mass noun, as is media (the plural form of medium) when it refers to things like television, radio, and publications. However, some of these words (such as criteria) must be treated as plural words in Standard English:

The mass media is/are scrambling to report on our extraordinary attack turtles.

The data about Camilla's artworks is/are clear: she'd rather be drawing dragons than doing anything except reading or gaming.

Phenomena like hurricanes and tornadoes are paltry compared to Camilla's raw power.

Exceptions and Variations

Some pronouns and group nouns (such as who, that, which, a herd, a group, the majority, a number, etc.) can be either singular or plural depending on the meaning of the sentence:

A girl like Camilla who has limitless comedic energy could power a small city.

Turtles that fetch specific bottles of beer are extremely useful and entertaining at parties.

In the first sentence above, who is singular because it refers to girl. In the second sentence, that is plural because it refers to turtles.

The expression “the number of” refers to one number, so it is always treated as a singular subject:

The number of dragons that Camilla has drawn is absurdly large.

The expression “a number of,” on the other hand, really means “several” or “many,” so it is treated as a plural subject:

A number of people feel that she may in fact be part dragon herself.

Collective nouns and fractional expressions (including words like majority) can also be singular or plural, depending on the context. When the context suggests a single unit, it is treated as a singular subject; when it suggests multiple individuals, it is treated as a plural subject:

A majority of people find Slydelle and Vamaria quite charming, if a bit intimidating.

Since the “majority” in this sentence consists of separate individuals, not a singular unit, majority is treated as a plural subject. In the sentence below, majority is considered singular because it is associated with a singular noun:

The majority of Camilla's free time is spent reading, gaming, drawing, or plotting to take over the world.