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Chapter 24: Subject-verb agreement.

After reading this chapter, you should begin to ...

* identify the number and person of a noun or pronoun;

* apply the concept of number and person to subject-verb agreement;

* form the present tense of regular and irregular verbs, and the past tense of to be;

* make verbs agree with the subject of a sentence when it is a compound subject; an indefinite pronoun; a collective noun, title, or amount; or a singular noun ending in -s; and

* make subjects and verbs agree in sentences with inverted word order.

We know that every sentence needs a verb in order to be complete and that strong, specific verbs make our sentences more fluent and descriptive. We should also pay special attention to verbs as we check that our grammar and word usage is correct. In Chapter 22, we looked at sentence fragments and how to fix them, sometimes by adding or altering a verb. In Chapter 23, we used the identification of the subject and verb to fix run-on sentences and comma splices. In this chapter we'll examine how to use verbs correctly in the present tense and how to make them agree with their subjects. Then in Chapter 25 we'll study the principal parts of verbs, the remaining tenses, and the properties of voice and mood.


Both subjects and verbs have something called number; that is, the subjects refer either to one item (singular) or to more than one (plural), and the verb follows suit. For example, the subject of the sentence "The student relaxes in the gazebo" is singular: student. In contrast, the subject of the sentence "The students relax in the gazebo" is plural: students. Look at the subjects in the following list:


I paddle the canoe.

You paddle the canoe.

He paddles the canoe.

The vacationing chef paddles the canoe.

Lydia paddles the canoe.


We paddle the canoe.

You paddle the canoe.

They paddle the canoe.

The vacationing chefs paddle the canoe.

Lydia and Caroline paddle the canoe.

Subjects also have something called person. First person refers to the person who is speaking; it's the person through whose eyes we see the action, like the first-person shooter in a video game. The first-person pronouns are the singular I and the plural we. Second person refers to the person who is spoken to directly, you. English now has only one form for both singular and plural in the second person. In the past, however--as Spanish, French, and German, for example, do today--English had a special second-person singular pronoun, thou.

Third person refers to the person spoken about or seen from outside, like a third-person shooter. Third person includes the singular pronouns he, she, and it, as well as all singular nouns, such as chef and Lydia. Third person also includes nouns that refer to places, things, and ideas, such as city, tomato, and friendship. The third-person plural includes the pronoun they and all plural nouns, such as chefs, cities, and tomatoes, and compound subjects connected with and, such as Lydia and Caroline. Taken together, number and person create six categories or boxes (see Figure 24.1).

You can see that while the boxes for first and second person have only one word each, subjects in the third person come in many different shapes and sizes.


When we're talking about subjects and verbs, agreement means that the form of the verb matches the subject's person and number. For example, the verb cook matches the pronoun you, but we need cooks to agree with he. Of course, in order to make the subject and verb "agree" we must first find them, as we did in Chapter 21. Remember, we're looking for the simple grammatical subject. Then we must decide whether the subject is singular or plural and whether it is in the first, second, or third person. That is, we must put the subject into one of the six boxes. Finally, we must choose the verb form that agrees with the subject in terms of number and person. In other words, a verb must be in the same box as its subject (see Figure 24.2).

You can see that the form of the verb changes in only one of the boxes, the thirdperson singular. While the verbs in every other box use the base form cook, the verbs in the third-person singular box add an s, cooks. Note the possibility for confusion here. While most nouns form the plural by adding s, verbs form the third person singular by adding -s or -es. Don't make the mistake of thinking that verbs must end in s to be plural; in fact, the opposite is true. No plural verbs have an added s. Thus in most subject-verb pairs, only one of them can have that s. (There are exceptions, but we'll deal with them in a moment.) Look again at this pair of sentences:

   The vacationing chef paddles the canoe.

   The vacationing chefs paddle the canoe.

Only one gets the s, the subject or the verb. To remember which is which, keep in mind that the verb must agree with the subject, not the other way around. So if the subject is singular, the verb gets the s.

However, not all nouns form the plural by adding s, for example, children. In the sentence "The children relax in the gazebo," neither the subject children nor the verb relax ends in s. Further, some singular nouns end in s, and not all of them even have a plural form, for example, news (see Singular Nouns Ending in s later in this chapter). In the sentence "The news is good," both the subject news and the verb is end in s.

Subject-verb agreement is a topic filled with such issues and exceptions. One issue is that many dialects of spoken English use different rules for subject-verb agreement than formal written English does, and that's perfectly okay for speaking or informal writing. For professional or academic writing, however, we should follow the more formal usage. Another issue is that English contains both regular and irregular verbs. While the forms of regular verbs can be predicted, those of irregular verbs must be memorized individually.


All verbs have a base form or stem. To find it, take the infinitive phrase (to cook or to toss) and remove the to. For example, cook is the base form of to cook, and toss is the base form of to toss. To put a verb in the present tense--that is, to make the verb indicate that its action is occurring right now, in the present--we use either the base form (cook, toss) or the base form plus -s or -es (cooks, tosses). For regular verbs, like cook and toss, adding the suffix is straightforward. With irregular verbs, however, additional and unpredictable spelling changes occur.

The verbs have and do both use irregular forms in the third-person singular. We use the base form have in most situations: I have, we have, you have, they have. For the third-person singular, though, have drops the ve and adds s: he has. The irregular verb to do is similar: I do, we do, you do, they do. However, in forming the third-person singular, do adds the letter e along with the suffix -s and becomes does.

Most irregular is the verb to be (see Figure 24.3), which does not even use its base form in the present tense. Instead, it uses the unpredictable forms am, are, and is. Like regular verbs, irregular verbs have an ending with -s and an ending without -s, but we will need to memorize the other changes that occur within the word. The verb to be also changes form in the past tense (see Figure 24.4).


As we saw in Chapter 20, many sentences contain verb phrases, that is, two or more words that act like a single word. For example, Samuel is reading his textbook, or Veronica has planned to visit bakeries in France. In such cases, the first helping verb in the phrase is the one that must agree with the subject. The other parts of the phrase do not change form. Consider the following examples:

   Samuel is reading his textbook.

   Samuel and Veronica are reading their textbooks.

The choice is between the singular is and the plural are. The rest of the verb phrase--reading--remains unchanged.

Note that only some of the helping verbs change form: is/are, was/were, has/have, does/do. Other helping verbs do not change form, whether they are used with singular or plural subjects: can, could, did, had, may, might, must, should, will, should. Compare the following examples:

Singular                Plural

Samuel could read the   Samuel and Veronica could
French menu.            read the French menu.

The waiter must take    The waiters must take
the drink order.        the drink orders.


All this time, we've been talking about simply "finding the subject" as if that were the easy part of the job. Yet we remember from Chapter 21 that finding the subject of the sentence can be tricky. Once we find it, we must identify it as singular or plural. Then we make the verb "agree" by choosing the appropriate form.


Sometimes prepositional phrases or other groups of words can come between the subject and verb and cause confusion. For example, consider the following sentence:

   The host in the grey suit and shiny black shoes took the

In this example, there are three nouns before the verb: host, suit, and shoes. In looking carefully, we see that suit and shoes are both objects of the preposition in and therefore cannot be the subject. The word reservations later in the sentence is the object of the verb took. Thus when we ask "Who took the reservations?" the word host is the only possible answer and is, in fact, the subject of the sentence.

Similarly, the subject and verb may be separated by an entire clause, as in the following sentence:

   The host, who was wearing a grey suit and shiny black shoes, took
   the reservations.

Here the relative clause who was wearing a grey suit and shiny black shoes may be bracketed off--it has its own subject, who, and its own verb, was wearing. That leaves host as the subject of the main clause and the verb took.

   The host, [who was wearing a grey suit and shiny black shoes,] took
   the reservations.

The reason such phrases and clauses can cause confusion is that we instinctively want the verb to agree with the noun nearest to it. We must be aware, though, that the nearest noun is not necessarily the simple grammatical subject of the sentence.

Exercise 24.1 | When Subject and Verb Are Separated

Read each sentence carefully, identify the simple grammatical subject, and choose the verb that agrees with it.

1. Veronica, who is a student in baking and pastry arts, (plans/plan) to make a chocolate mousse cake for her project.

2. Her friend Samuel, on the other hand, (prefers/prefer) to try a souffle.

3. The difficulty with souffles (is/are) the possibility that they will collapse.

4. The purpose of these class projects (was/were) to experiment with a number of different recipes.

5. The students in Chef Vaughn's class (has/have) chosen popular desserts for their class projects.


In Chapter 21 we also talked about compound subjects, two or more nouns or pronouns that are connected by and, or, or nor and share the same verb. When compound subjects are connected by and, they are treated as plural:

   Samuel and Veronica like to make apple strudel. [no -s on like]

It's almost like a mathematical equation:

Samuel and Veronica like [plural form]

1 + 1 = more than one, or plural

One tiny exception is two nouns that are so often used together that they are treated as a unit, for example, macaroni and cheese or rock and roll. We wouldn't say "Macaroni and cheese are my favorite lunch." No, instead we would say "Macaroni and cheese is my favorite lunch." These exceptions are rare, however.

Exercise 24.2 | Compound Subjects with and

Read each of the following sentences, identify the subject, and choose the verb that agrees with it.

1. Samuel and Veronica (eats/eat) at the restaurant around the corner every Friday night.

2. Rock and roll (plays/play) softly in the background.

3. The salads and steaks (is/are) their favorite items on the menu.

4. The freshness of the greens and the originality of the house vinaigrette (makes/make) ordering the house salad a no-brainer.

5. Meanwhile, the steak and its caramelized onions (is/are) a special favorite of Veronica's.

Compound subjects may also be connected by or or nor, and here the rule is different. Let's look at the equation:

Samuel or Veronica likes [singular verb]

1 or 1 = 1


Samuel or his friends likes or like?

1 or 2 = ?

To clear up this confusion, a simple rule exists. When a compound subject is connected by or or nor, the verb agrees with the subject nearest to it. In the first example, Veronica is nearer to the verb, so it must take the singular form likes. In the second example, friends is nearer to the verb, which therefore takes the plural form like:

   Samuel or his friends like to make apple strudel.

If the subjects were reversed, however, it would be a different matter:

   His friends or Samuel likes to make apple strudel.

Because Samuel is closer to the verb, it takes the singular form likes (see Figure 24.5). However, in most cases where one subject is singular and the other plural, many writers choose to put the plural subject second, closer to the verb.

Exercise 24.3 | Compound Subjects with Or

Read each of the following sentences and identify the subject. Then circle the verb that agrees with it.

1. Chocolate or vanilla (is/are) a possible frosting for this yellow cake.

2. Rainbow sprinkles or chocolate shavings also (looks/look) good on this dessert.

3. One large cake or individual cupcakes (has/have) been successful birthday treats.

4. Ice cream or whipped cream (makes/make) a good addition to any cake.

5. The guests or the birthday child (is/are) likely to complain if no cake at all is served.


Unlike the personal pronouns he, she, and they, indefinite pronouns refer to general rather than specific persons, places, or things and include one, each, both, none, anything, and somebody (see also Chapters 20 and 21). They are sometimes difficult to identify as the subject simply because they are general words and do not seem to carry the meaning of the sentence in the way that a subject like the baker would. But remember that the simple grammatical subject has to do with the structure of the sentence rather than with its meaning.

In terms of number, indefinite pronouns can be divided into three categories (see Figure 24.6). The largest group is singular and contains such words as each, one, anything, anyone, anybody, everything, everyone, everybody, something, someone, somebody, nothing, nobody, either, and neither. The very form of these words seems to refer to one "thing," not "things."

   Each of the leading actors is effective.

   One of the supporting actors has an especially difficult role.

   Everything was ready for the shooting of the last scene.

   Nobody was prepared for the film's success.

   Neither of the screenwriters expects to win an Oscar.

The second group of indefinite pronouns is always plural: both, few, several, and many. These words clearly refer to more than one. Both means two, a few is perhaps three, several is three to five, and many is probably more than five. For example:

   Both of the movies were nominated for an Academy Award.

   Few of the experts predict the comedy to win.

   Several like the suspenseful and well-acted Apollo 13.

   Many prefer the moving, fact-based Philadelphia.

The final group of indefinite pronouns can be either singular or plural, depending on their use in a given sentence: all, any, more, most, and some. To determine whether a pronoun is used as singular or plural, we must look for clues in the sentence or in the surrounding text. One of the most common places for such clues is in a prepositional phrase following the pronoun. Consider the following pair of sentences:

   Most of the cake is decorated.

   Most of the cakes are decorated.

The grammatical subject in both sentences is the indefinite pronoun most. Yet in the first sentence most refers to a single cake and takes the singular verb is, while in the second sentence most refers to many cakes and takes the plural form are. See Figure 24.7.

Exercise 24.4 | Making Verbs Agree with Indefinite Pronouns

Read each of the following sentences and identify the subject. Then choose the verb that agrees with it.

1. Most of the fans of The Lord of the Rings, a trio of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, (was/were) looking forward to watching the movie.

2. Some of the tickets to the popular film series (was/were) sold in advance.

3. Yet some of the movie version (does/do) not follow the original story.

4. Despite these changes, most of the story (is/are) satisfying to many Tolkien fans.

5. Not all of the fans, however, (appreciates/appreciate) Peter Jackson's interpretation of the well-loved books.


Collective nouns are words that name a group with several members, such as audience, class, flock, jury, and team. In American usage, collective nouns are most often treated as singular because the group is thought of as a unit. Even though more than one person is in the audience, for example, we would write "The audience is applauding enthusiastically." Study the following examples:

   The basketball team was ranked number one in the poll.

   The board of directors has decided to approve the budget.

   The flock of sheep was sold at the end of the summer.

Note that in other dialects of English, such as British English, collective nouns are typically plural: The family are sitting down to breakfast. However, in American English, collective nouns are most often treated as singular: The family is sitting down to breakfast. On the rare occasion when we wish to highlight the individual members of the group, we may use a plural verb.

Collective nouns can be quite striking. We all know the flock of sheep, the herd of horses, even the school of fish. But are you familiar with the flick of rabbits, the shiver of sharks, the rhumba of rattlesnakes, or the murder of crows? And what about an eloquence of lawyers or a sneer of butlers?

Like collective nouns, specific amounts, whether of money, weight, time, or distance, are considered singular when the amount is treated as a unit. Study the following examples:

   Three dollars was too much to pay for that cup of coffee.

   Five pounds of sugar is needed for this recipe.

   Six years seems like a long engagement.

   Four miles is a good length for the dog's walk.

As with collective nouns, there are rare occasions when these concepts are considered plural. For example, in the sentence "Three dollars are lying on the table," we're thinking of three separate dollar bills.

Fractions and percentages take a singular verb when they refer to a singular item, and they take a plural verb when they refer to a plural item:

   Two-thirds of the money was lost in a bad investment. [money is
   singular; was is singular]

   Two-thirds of the tomatoes were ripe. [tomatoes is plural; were is

Finally, titles of organizations, nations, books, or films always take a singular verb, even when they seem to be plural. For example, the United States is one political entity, although it consists of more than one state.

   Simon & Schuster is a well-known publishing company.

   The United States was fortunate in its first president.

   The Grapes of Wrath has been made into a film.

Exercise 24.5 | Collective Nouns, Titles, and Amounts

Read each of the following sentences, and identify the subject and the verb. If the verb does not agree, write in the correct form.

Example: was The pack of dogs were running wild outside of town.

-- 1. The men's basketball team at Duke University is often ranked among the top five teams in the nation.

-- 2. Three-fourths of the birthday money were put into the bank.

-- 3. The Netherlands are famous for growing magnificent tulips.

-- 4. The jury were sequestered in a nearby hotel for the duration of the trial.

-- 5. Ten dollars were too much to pay for that sandwich.


Some nouns that end in -s are actually singular and take a singular verb, for example, economics, mathematics, measles, mumps, and news. You don't get sick with a "mump." You don't turn on a "new" at six o'clock. Yet, although they end with -s, mumps and news both take a singular verb.

   The mumps is a potentially serious disease for adolescent males.

   The news concerning the storm's damage remains encouraging.

   Mathematics was my favorite subject in high school.

Conversely, some other nouns that always end in -s and take a plural verb actually refer to single entities. Examples include scissors, shears, tweezers, pants, and trousers:

   These scissors seem dangerously sharp.

   The young chef's pants were too long.


Finding the subject may be difficult in inverted sentences, that is, when the most common word order of subject followed by verb is reversed, as in questions or in sentences that begin with There or Here. Questions are frequently formed with a verb phrase that is split in two by the subject, making both harder to find.

   Does that young man wish to order his dinner now?

One way to tackle such a question is to change it into a statement without dropping or changing any words: That young man does wish to order his dinner now. This change brings the two parts of the verb together--does wish--and puts the subject first, which is where we are more accustomed to finding it.

Sentences that begin with There or Here, even with a prepositional phrase, may also invert the order of subject and verb. Look at the following sentences:

   There are many ways to cook chicken.

   Here is a delicious recipe for coq au vin.

   In the kitchen were three hot and tired chicken-loving chefs.

The initial There or Here will never be the subject, but it alerts us to the change in word order: the verb will come next or shortly thereafter and will be followed by the subject. In the first example, the verb is are, followed by the subject ways. In the second, the verb is is, followed by the subject recipe. Occasionally, a prepositional phrase will perform the same function of inverting the word order. The third of our examples begins with the prepositional phrase In the kitchen, followed by the verb were, and then by the subject chefs.

A further complication arises when a sentence with inverted word order begins with a contraction such as Here's or There's. Here's = Here is. There's = There is. With the verb partly concealed by the apostrophe, we may overlook the fact that it is singular, is, and we may therefore overlook a potential error in agreement. Study the following examples:

   Here's a fresh scone. [correct; the singular verb is agrees with

   Here's some fresh scones. [incorrect; the subject scones requires
   the plural verb]

   Here are some fresh scones. [correct; the plural verb are agrees
   with scones]

Exercise 24.6 | Inverted Word Order

Read each of the following sentences, and identify the subject and the verb. If the verb does not agree, write in the correct form.

Example: has There have been a series of changes to the menu.

-- 1. There's few things more delicious than hot chocolate on a cold day.

-- 2. Fortunately, there are many places you can find that delicious drink.

-- 3. Do the news ever report special flavors of hot chocolate, such as peppermint or caramel?

-- 4. Has the different varieties of hot chocolate made it a more popular drink?

-- 5. Here's more reasons to choose hot chocolate.



As you edit any piece of academic or business writing, you will want to check each sentence for correct subject-verb agreement. First, find the simple grammatical subject, keeping in mind the various confusions and exceptions:

1. Be careful of nouns in prepositional phrases or other clauses that look like the subject.

2. Compound subjects connected by and are treated as plural.

3. When a compound subject is connected by or or nor, the verb must agree with the nearest subject.

4. Indefinite pronouns come in three types--the large group that is always singular, the four words that are always plural, and the group that can go either way depending on what the pronoun refers to.

5. Some subjects appear plural but are treated as singular, such as collective nouns, titles, and measured amounts.

6. Watch out for irregular nouns ending in -s.

7. Take extra care with inverted word order in questions and in statements that begin with There or Here.


Second, check that the verb agrees with the simple grammatical subject. Singular subjects take verbs that end in -s or -es. Plural subjects take verbs without the suffix. Remember that only verbs in the present tense change form, with the exception of the past tense of to be (was and were).


DIRECTIONS: PART I. Read each of the following sentences, and identify the subject and verb. If the verb does not agree, write the correct form on the blank.

-- 1. Each of the kitchens and restaurants has different menus and assignments.

-- 2. The chefs from each class has to put their orders in to the storeroom three days in advance.

-- 3. Without the storeroom, the kitchens cannot operate, and neither the chefs nor the students have anything to do.

-- 4. In the storeroom, the bright colors and earthy scents of the produce create an inviting atmosphere.

-- 5. Do the school use many different vendors for its food supply?

-- 6. Some of the walk-ins has an indescribable cold smell.

-- 7. Freshly picked grapes and a ripe pineapple sits on a small shelf near the door.

-- 8. Jerusalem artichokes and Daikon radishes are stored in cardboard boxes.

-- 9. There is sixty to seventy varieties of cheese in the refrigerator.

-- 10. Like a beating heart, the storeroom pumps out food to all the kitchens at the college.

DIRECTIONS: PART II. Read each sentence in the following passage, and identify the subject and verb. If the verb does not agree, write the corrected sentence on a separate sheet of paper.

In the television series The Closer, C.I.A.-trained interrogator Brenda Leigh Johnson takes a new job as head of the Priority Homicide Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. The transition isn't easy, however. Many of the team members resent her taking over from their former boss, Captain Taylor. Others feel that she won't understand the unique environment of L.A. since she's from Atlanta. There's other difficulties as well, such as the demands she makes on her team and her personal relationship with the Chief of Police.

Brenda's first case is that of an unidentified woman who has been found in the home of a successful computer programmer. Captain Taylor and Lieutenant Flynn considers Brenda's presence at the crime scene especially annoying because she proceeds to explain what they've been doing wrong. In addition, the medical examiner resents being summoned to confirm that the seriously decomposed body is, in fact, dead. By the end of her second day on the job, all of the members of Brenda's team has requested transfer to another division.

The hostility begins to abate, however, when the team observes Brenda's interrogation of the victim's innocent-looking secretary. It turns out that the victim is actually the computer programmer, a woman who has been living as a man in order to avoid being arrested on a murder charge in another state. She and the naive secretary, who believes she is working for a man, has become romantically involved. But when "his" secretary discovers his true identity, she bashes him over the head, then shoot him in the face. Through a combination of cunning and compassion, Brenda elicits a confession from the distraught woman, and her team members begin to reevaluate "Miss Atlanta."

Figure 24.1 Singular and Plural Subjects

             Singular       Plural

1st person   I              we
2nd person   you            you
3rd person   he, she, it    they
             chef, Lydia    chefs, Lydia
             city, tomato   and Caroline
             excellence     cities, tomatoes
                            [no plural form]

Figure 24.2 Subject-Verb Agreement

             Singular            Plural

1st person   I cook              we cook
2nd person   you cook            you cook
3rd person   he, she, it cooks   they cook
             the vacationing     the vacationing
               chef cooks          chefs cook
             Lydia cooks         Lydia and
                                   Caroline cook
             the tomato cooks    the tomatoes cook

Figure 24.3 The Irregular Verb to be

             Singular         Plural

1st person   I am             we are

2nd person   you are          you are

3rd person   he, she, it is   they are
             chef is          chefs are
             Lydia is         Lydia and Caroline
             tomato is        are tomatoes are

Figure 24.4 The Past Tense of to be

             Singular          Plural

1st person   I was             we were

2nd person   you were          you were

3rd person   he, she, it was   they were
             chef was          chefs were
             Lydia was         Lydia and Caroline were
             tomato was        tomatoes were

Figure 24.6 Agreement with Indefinite Pronouns

Number            Pronouns                    Verbs

always            each                        is
singular          one                         was
                  someone, somebody,          does
                  something                   has
                  anyone, anybody,            cooks
                  anything                    writes
                  everyone, everybody,
                  no one, nobody,
                  either, neither

still singular,   each of the                 is
even with a         leading actors
prepositional     one of the supporting       was
phrase              actors                    does
                  either of the directors     has
                  neither of the              cooks
                    screenwriters             writes

Number            Pronouns                    Verbs

always            both                        are
plural            few                         were
                  several                     do
                  many                        have

still plural      both of the                 are

with a            movies                      were
prepositional     several of the              do
phrase            pastries                    have

Figure 24.7 Agreement with Indefinite Pronouns,
Singular or Plural

Singular Use        Singular Verb

All of the bread    is gone.
Most of the cake    is decorated.
Some of the story   was funny.

Plural Use          Plural Verb

All of the breads   are gone.
Most of the cakes   are decorated.
Some of the stories were funny.

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Title Annotation:UNIT 3: PRESENTATION
Author:Cadbury, Vivian C.
Publication:A Taste for Writing, Composition for Culinarians
Article Type:Brief article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Previous Article:Chapter 23: Run-on sentences and comma splices.
Next Article:Chapter 25: More about verbs.

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