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Write Clearly: Grammar

Note about this guide

In this guide, bold font and parentheses are used to draw attention to subjects and verbs. Screen Reader Users: Please set your program’s punctuation level to 'most' or 'all' in order to hear the content in parentheses.

What is subject-verb agreement?

Every sentence needs both a subject and a verb to be complete. Some subjects are singular, and some are plural. A singular subject requires a certain form of a verb. In many cases, a plural subject requires a different form of a verb.

For example, the cat (subject) sits (verb), but the cats (subject) sit (verb).

9 rules for subject-verb agreement

A verb should always agree with its subject.

A verb should agree with its singular or plural subject by being in the correct form.   

For example

  • My friend (subject) is (verb) smart, and my acquaintances (subject) are (verb) smart. 

Subjects and verbs must agree even when words come between them.

  • The teacher (subject), as well as her students, was (verb) pleased with the results of the test.
  • The design (subject), with its intricate patterns, is (verb) especially clever.
  • The group (subject) of students is (verb) meeting now to discuss the tuition increase.

Two or more subjects joined by “and” take a plural verb.

  • The teacher (subject) and the students (subject) were (verb) pleased with the results of the test.

Singular subjects joined by “or” or “nor” take singular verbs; plural subjects joined by “or” or “nor” require plural verbs.

  • Neither the professor (subject) nor her spouse (subject) was (verb) happy with the salary adjustment.
  • Neither the students (subject) nor their friends (subject) were (verb) pleased with the tuition increase.

When a singular subject and a plural subject are joined by “or” or “nor,” the verb agrees with the subject that is closer to it.

  • Neither the professor (subject) nor the students (subject) were (verb) happy with the results. 
  • Neither the students (subject) nor the professor (subject) was (verb) happy with the results.

Words ending in “one,” “thing,” or “body” and words such as “each,” “either,” and “neither” take singular verbs.

  • Everyone (subject) involved in implementing the company’s new policies and procedures is (verb) here.
  • Somebody (subject) knows (verb) where the boardroom is located.

The agreement of pronouns depends on the countable nature of the word or phrase to which the pronoun refers.

The agreement of pronouns such as “any,” “most,” “all,” “many,” “more,” “some,” “who,” “that,” and “which” depends on whether the word or phrase to which the pronoun refers is countable or noncountable (also known as uncountable).

Countable nouns can usually be expressed in singular and plural (tree/trees, cat/cats, student/students).

Noncountable nouns cannot usually be expressed in plural (research, literature, evidence).

  • Most of the apples (subject) are (verb) ripe.  [countable noun]
  • Most of the sugar (subject) is (verb) in the cup. [uncountable noun]

Collective nouns can take singular or plural verbs, depending on whether the sentence is referring to the group as a unit or as individuals.

Collective nouns refer to a single group that has multiple members. If the noun refers to the group as a unit, use a singular verb. If the noun refers to the group members as individuals, use a plural verb.

  • The jury (subject) is (verb) announcing its verdict. [as a unit]
  • The faculty (subject) were (verb) in disagreement over their options. [as individuals]

When a sentence begins with “there” or “here,” the verb still agrees with the subject.

This rule is applicable to sentences in an inverted word order (where the subject follows the verb).

  • There are (verb) several answers (subject) to this problem.
  • There is (verb) one reason (subject) for his anger.
  • Driving along the highway were (verb) several tanker trucks (subject).

Resources to help with writing your essay

Write Clearly: Using Evidence EffectivelyGuide: Write Clearly: StyleWrite Clearly: Using Quotations in Your Ess

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