subject verb agreement

NOTE

We will use the standard of underlining subjects once and verbs twice.

Being able to find the right subject and verb will help you correct errors of subject-verb agreement.

Basic Rule. A singular subject (she, Bill, car) takes a singular verb (is, goes, shines), whereas a plural subject takes a plural verb.

Example: The list of items is/are on the desk.
If you know that list is the subject, then you will choose is for the verb.

Rule 1. A subject will come before a phrase beginning with of. This is a key rule for understanding subjects. The word of is the culprit in many, perhaps most, subject-verb mistakes.

Hasty writers, speakers, readers, and listeners might miss the all-too-common mistake in the following sentence:

Incorrect: A bouquet of yellow roses lend color and fragrance to the room.

Correct: A bouquet of yellow roses lends . . . (bouquet lends, not roses lend)

Rule 2. Two singular subjects connected by or, either/or, or neither/nor require a singular verb.

Examples:
My aunt or my uncle is arriving by train today.
Neither Juan nor Carmen is available.
Either Kiana or Casey is helping today with stage decorations.

Rule 3. The verb in an or, either/or, or neither/nor sentence agrees with the noun or pronoun closest to it.

Examples:
Neither the plates nor the serving bowl goes on that shelf.
Neither the serving bowl nor the plates go on that shelf.

This rule can lead to bumps in the road. For example, if I is one of two (or more) subjects, it could lead to this odd sentence:

Awkward: Neither she, my friends, nor I am going to the festival.

If possible, it’s best to reword such grammatically correct but awkward sentences.

Better:
Neither she, I, nor my friends are going to the festival.
OR
She, my friends, and I are not going to the festival.

Rule 4. As a general rule, use a plural verb with two or more subjects when they are connected by and.

Example: A car and a bike are my means of transportation.

But note these exceptions:

Exceptions:
Breaking and entering is against the law.
The bed and breakfast was charming.

In those sentences, breaking and entering and bed and breakfast are compound nouns.

Rule 5. Sometimes the subject is separated from the verb by such words as along with, as well as, besides, not, etc. These words and phrases are not part of the subject. Ignore them and use a singular verb when the subject is singular.

Examples:
The politician, along with the newsmen, is expected shortly.
Excitement, as well as nervousness, is the cause of her shaking.

Rule 6. With words that indicate portions—a lot, a majority, some, all, etc.—Rule 1 given earlier is reversed, and we are guided by the noun after of. If the noun after of is singular, use a singular verb. If it is plural, use a plural verb.

Examples:
A lot of the pie has disappeared.
A lot of the pies have disappeared.
A third of the city is unemployed.
A third of the people are unemployed.
All of the pie is gone.
All of the pies are gone.
Some of the pie is missing.
Some of the pies are missing.

NOTE

In recent years, the SAT testing service has considered none to be strictly singular. However, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “Clearly none has been both singular and plural since Old English and still is. The notion that it is singular only is a myth of unknown origin that appears to have arisen in the 19th century. If in context it seems like a singular to you, use a singular verb; if it seems like a plural, use a plural verb. Both are acceptable beyond serious criticism.” When none is clearly intended to mean “not one,” it is followed by a singular verb.

Rule 7. In sentences beginning with here or there, the true subject follows the verb.

Examples:
There are four hurdles to jump.
There is a high hurdle to jump.
Here are the keys.

NOTE:

The word there’s, a contraction of there is, leads to bad habits in informal sentences like There’s a lot of people here today, because it’s easier to say “there’s” than “there are.” Take care never to use there’s with a plural subject.

Rule 8. Use a singular verb with distances, periods of time, sums of money, etc., when considered as a unit.

Examples:
Three miles is too far to walk.
Five years is the maximum sentence for that offense.
Ten dollars is a high price to pay.
BUT
Ten dollars (i.e., dollar bills) were scattered on the floor.

Rule 9. Some collective nouns, such as family, couple, staff, audience, etc., may take either a singular or a plural verb, depending on their use in the sentence.

Examples:
The staff is in a meeting.
Staff is acting as a unit.
The couple disagree about disciplining their child.
The couple refers to two people who are acting as individuals.

NOTE

Anyone who uses a plural verb with a collective noun must take care to be accurate—and also consistent. It must not be done carelessly. The following is the sort of flawed sentence one sees and hears a lot these days:

The staff is deciding how they want to vote.
Careful speakers and writers would avoid assigning the singular is and the plural they to staff in the same sentence.

Consistent: The staff are deciding how they want to vote.

Rewriting such sentences is recommended whenever possible. The preceding sentence would read even better as:

The staff members are deciding how they want to vote.

Rule 10. The word were replaces was in sentences that express a wish or are contrary to fact:

Example: If Joe were here, you’d be sorry.

Shouldn’t Joe be followed by was, not were, given that Joe is singular? But Joe isn’t actually here, so we say were, not was. The sentence demonstrates the subjunctive mood, which is used to express things that are hypothetical, wishful, imaginary, or factually contradictory. The subjunctive mood pairs singular subjects with what we usually think of as plural verbs.

Examples:
I wish it were Friday.
She requested that he raise his hand.

In the first example, a wishful statement, not a fact, is being expressed; therefore, were, which we usually think of as a plural verb, is used with the singular subject I.

Normally, he raise would sound terrible to us. However, in the second example, where a request is being expressed, the subjunctive mood is correct.

Note: The subjunctive mood is losing ground in spoken English but should still be used in formal speech and writing.

Verbs

Group I Normal Verbs

Most verbs are “Normal Verbs.” These verbs are usually physical actions which you can see somebody doing. These verbs can be used in all tenses.
Normal Verbs

to run, to walk, to eat, to fly, to go, to say, to touch, etc.

Group II Non-Continuous Verbs

The second group, called “Non-Continuous Verbs,” is smaller. These verbs are usually things you cannot see somebody doing. These verbs are rarely used in continuous tenses. They include:

Abstract Verbs

to be, to want, to cost, to seem, to need, to care, to contain, to owe, to exist…

Possession Verbs

to possess, to own, to belong…

Emotion Verbs

to like, to love, to hate, to dislike, to fear, to envy, to mind…

Examples:

He is needing help now. Not Correct
He needs help now. Correct

He is wanting a drink now. Not Correct
He wants a drink now. Correct

Group III Mixed Verbs

The third group, called “Mixed Verbs,” is the smallest group. These verbs have more than one meaning. In a way, each meaning is a unique verb. Some meanings behave like “Non-Continuous Verbs,” while other meanings behave like “Normal Verbs.”
Mixed Verbs

to appear, to feel, to have, to hear, to look, to see, to weigh…
List of Mixed Verbs with Examples and Definitions:

to appear:

Donna appears confused. Non-Continuous Verb
Donna seems confused.
My favorite singer is appearing at the jazz club tonight. Normal Verb
My favorite singer is giving a performance at the jazz club tonight.

to have:

I have a dollar now. Non-Continuous Verb
I possess a dollar.
I am having fun now. Normal Verb
I am experiencing fun now.

to hear:

She hears the music. Non-Continuous Verb
She hears the music with her ears.
She is hearing voices. Normal Verb
She hears something others cannot hear. She is hearing voices in her mind.

to look:

Nancy looks tired. Non-Continuous Verb
She seems tired.
Farah is looking at the pictures. Normal Verb
She is looking with her eyes.

to miss:

John misses Sally. Non-Continuous Verb
He is sad because she is not there.
Debbie is missing her favorite TV program. Normal Verb
She is not there to see her favorite program.

to see:

I see her. Non-Continuous Verb
I see her with my eyes.
I am seeing the doctor. Normal Verb
I am visiting or consulting with a doctor. (Also used with dentist and lawyer.)
I am seeing her. Normal Verb
I am having a relationship with her.
He is seeing ghosts at night. Normal Verb
He sees something others cannot see. For example ghosts, aura, a vision of the future, etc.

to smell:

The coffee smells good. Non-Continuous Verb
The coffee has a good smell.
I am smelling the flowers. Normal Verb
I am sniffing the flowers to see what their smell is like.

to taste:

The coffee tastes good. Non-Continuous Verb
The coffee has a good taste.
I am tasting the cake. Normal Verb
I am trying the cake to see what it tastes like.

to think:

He thinks the test is easy. Non-Continuous Verb
He considers the test to be easy.
She is thinking about the question. Normal Verb
She is pondering the question, going over it in her mind.

to weigh:

The table weighs a lot. Non-Continuous Verb
The table is heavy.
She is weighing herself. Normal Verb
She is determining her weight.

Some Verbs Can Be Especially Confusing:

to be:

Joe is American. Non-Continuous Verb
Joe is an American citizen.
Joe is being very American. Normal Verb
Joe is behaving like a stereotypical American.
Joe is being very rude. Normal Verb
Joe is behaving very rudely. Usually he is not rude.
Joe is being very formal. Normal Verb
Joe is behaving very formally. Usually he is not formal.

NOTICE: Only rarely is “to be” used in a continuous form. This is most commonly done when a person is temporarily behaving badly or stereotypically. It can also be used when someone’s behavior is noticeably different.

to feel:

The massage feels great. Non-Continuous Verb
The massage has a pleasing feeling.
I don’t feel well today. Sometimes used as Non-Continuous Verb
I am a little sick.
I am not feeling well today. Sometimes used as Normal Verb
I am a little sick.

NOTICE: The second meaning of “feel” is very flexible and there is no real difference in meaning between “I don’t feel well today” and “I am not feeling well today.”

Past Perfect

[had + past participle]

USE 1 – Completed Action Before Something in the Past

Examples:

  • She had never seen a bear before she moved to Alaska.
  • I had never seen such a beautiful beach before I went to Kauai.
  • I did not have any money because I had lost my wallet.
  • Tony knew Istanbul so well because he had visited the city several times.
  • Had Susan ever studied Thai before she moved to Thailand?
  • She only understood the movie because she had read the book.
  • Kristine had never been to an opera before last night.
  • We were not able to get a hotel room because we had not booked in advance.
  • A: Had you ever visited the U.S. before your trip in 2006?
  • B: Yes, I had been to the U.S. once before.

USE 2 – Duration Before Something in the Past (Non-Continuous Verbs)

  • By the time Alex finished his studies, he had been in London for over eight years.
  • They felt bad about selling the house because they had owned it for more than forty years.

MPORTANT Specific Times with the Past Perfect

example: She had visited her Japanese relatives once in 1993 before she moved in with them in 1996.

Present Perfect

FORM
[has/have + past participle]

The present perfect is a grammatical combination of the present tense and the perfect aspect, used to express a past event that has present consequences.

The present perfect in English is used chiefly for completed past actions or events, when it is understood that it is the present result of the events that is focused upon, rather than the moment of completion.

i.e I have [present tense] eaten [perfect aspect]; he has eaten (present perfect, generally denoting something that took place prior to the present moment)

1) Actions started in the past and continuing in the present:

We have had the same car for eleven years.

2) When the time period referred to has not finished:

It has rained a lot this year.

3) Actions repeated in an unspecified period between the past and now:

We have eaten at that restaurant many times.

4) Actions completed in the very recent past (+just):

Have you just finished work?

5) When the precise time of the action is not important or not known:

She’s studied Japanese, Russian and English.

Unspecified time before Now

  • I have seen that movie twenty times.
  • I think I have met him once before.
  • There have been many earthquakes in California.
  • People have traveled to the Moon.
  • People have not traveled to Mars.
  • Have you read the book yet?
  • Nobody has ever climbed that mountain.
  • A: Has there ever been a war in the United States?
  • B: Yes, there has been a war in the United States.