Grammar: Subject-Verb Agreement

Posted December 26, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Grammar Explanations, Self-Editing, Writing

In spite of the convoluted categories below, subject-verb agreement is very simple — a singular noun, ball, must agree with a singular verb, bounces. If it were a plural noun, balls, it would require a plural verb, bounce.

Explore “person in the “Verb” post for the details on singular and plural verbs.

Grammar Explanations is…

…an evolving list of the structural rules and principles that determines where words are placed in phrases or sentences as well as how the language is spoken. Sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if it makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone on an area of grammar with which you struggle or on which you can contribute more understanding.

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Subject-Verb Agreement
Credit to: Capital Community College Foundation; Purdue OWL; English Mistakes Welcome.com; Grammar Book; Towson.edu
Definition: Subjects and verbs must match: singular subjects require singular verbs while plural subjects require plural verbs. Subjects can be nouns, pronouns, or a set of words that the verb acts on.

Also check out the collective/group in nouns or antecedents for more on its singular or plural possibilities.

POST CONTENTS:

Singular Agreements

Plural Agreements

Singular or Plural

Singular Plural
One student is handing in her homework. All the students are handing in their homework.
Mary is going to the theatre after work. Mary and Jane are going to the theatre after work.
He gives great presents. They give great presents.
The kitten is absorbed by the fish swimming in their bowl. The kittens are absorbed by the fish swimming in its bowl.

Legend:

  1. Yellow indicates the singular subject
  2. Orange indicates the plural subject
  3. Green indicates the singular verb
  4. Blue indicates the plural verb
  5. White-on-Green indicates the singular pronoun
  6. Coral indicates the plural pronoun
Singular Agreements
Compound Nouns are Singular Rule: When using a compound noun as a subject, it uses a singular verb.

Also see two subjects connected by and.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

Breaking-and-entering is against the law.

The bed-and-breakfast was charming.

Of Conundrum Rule: The subject comes before a phrase beginning with of.

This of phrase conundrum has caused a’many subject-verb mistakes.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

A bouquet of yellow roses lends color and fragrance to the room.

Several bouquets of yellow roses lend color and fragrance to the room.


A cloud of brown dust rises up across the plains.

Clouds of brown dust rise up across the plains.

Or/Nor with Singular Rule: When the subject is two or more singular nouns (or pronouns) connected by or or nor, use a singular verb.

Also see Or/Nor with Singular + Plural.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

The book or the pen is in the drawer.

The brush or the marker is on the table.

Singular Collective Noun Rule: A collective noun that is considered singular requires a singular verb.

Other collective subjects include: Plural Form Singular Subject, Plural Collective Noun, and SINGULAR Plural-Looking Subject That Takes Plural.

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Partial List of Singular Collective Nouns
athletics
billiards
class
committee
crew
family
group
herd
team
Examples
Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

The team practices during the summer.

The committee has voted against it.

The family has a long history of criminal behavior.

The jury is still out.

The herd is starting to move down to the winter pastures.

Plural Form Singular Subject Rule: Some nouns look like they’re plural, but are actually treated as singular nouns, and they require singular verbs.

Other collective subjects include: Singular Collective Noun, Plural Collective Noun, and SINGULAR Plural-Looking Subject That Takes Plural.

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Partial List of Plural-Looking Singular Nouns
civics mathematics
measles
mumps
news
physics
Examples:
Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

The news is on at six.

Mathematics is one of my favorite subjects.

The measles is running rampant throughout her class.

Civics was my least favorite class.

Titles Rule: Titles of single entities (books, organizations, countries, movies, etc.) are always singular.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

Star Wars is a classic.

Honduras is where I did my dive test.

International Campaign to Ban Landmines is a coalition that had Diana, the Princess of Wales, as a major supporter.
The Ghostfaces is a John Flanagan book.

Plural Agreements
And Plural Rule: When the subject is two or more nouns (or pronouns) that are connected by and, use a plural verb.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

She and her friends are at the fair.

Mark and Mary are getting married this fall.

Plural Collective Noun Rule: A collective noun that is a single item consisting of two parts requires plural verbs.

EXCEPTION: If the plural collective noun is preceded by pair of, then pair becomes the noun, and it is singular, which means it uses a singular verb.

Other collective subjects include: Singular Collective Noun, Plural Form Singular Subject, and SINGULAR Plural-Looking Subject That Takes Plural.

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Partial List of Plural Collective Nouns
pajamas
pliers
scissors
shears
trousers
tweezers
Examples:
Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

These scissors are dull.

Those trousers are made of wool.

Where are my tweezers?

Your pajamas are in the drawer.

The pliers are missing again.

The gardening shears are out in the garage.

A pair of plaid trousers is in the closet.

Singular-Looking Subject That Takes Plural Rule: Some nouns look like they’re singular, but are actually treated as plural nouns, and they require plural verbs.

Below are the plural-looking subjects that are actually singular and STILL take the plural verb.

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Partial List of Singular-Looking Plural Nouns
criteria data media
Examples:
Legend:

  1. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

The media have often created false celebrities.

Scientific data confuse the layman.

SINGULAR Plural-Looking Subject That Takes Plural Rule: Some nouns look like they’re plural, but are actually singular, and STILL treated as plural nouns, requiring plural verbs.

Other collective subjects include: Singular Collective Noun, Plural Form Singular Subject, and Plural Collective Noun.

You may also want to check out the above to compare against the Singular-Looking Subject That Takes Plural.

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Partial List of Plural-Looking Singular Nouns That are Plural
assets earnings thanks
Examples:
Legend:

  1. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

My assets were wiped out in the depression.

The average worker’s earnings have gone up dramatically.

Our thanks go to the workers who supported the union.

Sports Teams Rule: The names of sports teams are considered plural and use plural verbs.

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Legend:

  1. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

The Green Packers are looking for a new quarterback.

The Boston Celtics are planning to get rid of J.R. Smith.

The Miami Heat are benching Chris Roth.

The Connecticut Sun are hoping that new talent will pull them out of their slump.

Singular or Plural
Indefinite Pronouns Rule: Indefinite pronouns may be singular using a singular verb, or it may be plural and using a plural verb — depending on what it’s referring to.

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Partial List of Indefinite Pronouns
all*
each
each one
either
most*
neither
none*
everyone
everybody
anybody
anyone
nobody
some*
somebody
someone
no one
* Singular OR plural pronoun dependent upon whether the object is countable (can be counted) or uncountable (can’t be counted).
Examples:
Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)
  3. Orange indicates the uncountable noun
  4. Purple indicates the countable noun

Each of these hot dogs is juicy.

Everybody knows Mr. Jones.

Either is correct.

Neither one of us is right.

Hey, dude, nobody knows whassup.

No one, and I mean, no one is allowed inside this room.

Some of the beads are missing.

Some of the water is gone.

Relative Pronouns Rule: When the subject is a relative pronoun, it is either singular or plural, depending on the words to which they refer.

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Partial List of Relative Pronouns
See a complete list of relative pronouns in the post on “Pronoun”.
which
whichever
who
whom
that what
Examples:
Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject an/or verb)
  3. Orange indicates the referent

She is a brilliant student who studies many hours each night.
They are brilliant students who study many hours each night.

Doesn’t
Don’t
Rule:
Doesn’t = does not, which is a singular compound verb.

Don’t = do not, which is a plural compound verb.

The exception is when the pronoun is I or you, then use don’t.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

He doesn’t like it.

They don’t like it.

I don’t like it. *grin*

Dollars Rule: Use a singular verb when talking about an amount of money.
Use a plural verb when talking about the dollars themselves.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

Five dollars is a lot of money.

Dollars are often used instead of rubles in Russia.

Shekels are used instead of dollars in Israel.

Before the European Community, francs were the currency of choice in France.

Five marks is the equivalent of two dollars and eighty-one cents.

Ten one-dollar bills were scattered across the floor.

A ten-dollar bill was on the floor.

Here is, are
There is, are
Rule: The subject in sentences that begin with here is, here are, there is, or there are FOLLOW the verb, so the verb must agree with what follows the there is or are.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

Here are the keys.


Here is Mark now.

Here are the kids now.


There are many questions.

There is a question.


There’s the boat now.

There’re the boats now.

Ignore Phrases and Parentheses Rule: It’s the subject of the sentence that counts; ignore a phrase that comes between that subject and the verb or parentheses that encloses a phrase, for the verb agrees with the subject.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

One of the boxes is open.

The people who listen to that music are few.

The team captain, as well as his players, is anxious.

The book, including all the chapters in the first section, is boring.

The woman with all the dogs walks down my street.

The president, accompanied by his wife, is traveling to India.

All of the books, including yours, are in that box.


Joe (and his trusty mutt) was always welcome.

They (and their dog) were always welcome.

Mathematical Expressions Rule: Sums and products of mathematical processes are considered singular nouns and require singular verbs.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular verb)

Two and two is four.

Four times four divided by two is eight.

Five miles is too far to walk.

Numbers Of:
a, the
Rule: When using the number of, use a singular verb; when using a number of, use a plural verb.

Also see Of Conundrum.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

The number of volunteers grows each year.

A number of people grow tomatoes each year.

Or/Nor with Singular + Plural Rule: When the subject is a singular and a plural noun (or pronoun) that are connected by or or nor, the verb must agree with the noun/pronoun nearest the verb.

Also see Or/Nor with Singular.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

The boy or his friends run every day.

His friends or the boy runs every day.


Neither the cat nor the dogs are happy about the move.

Neither the dogs nor the cat is happy about the move.


Either the scissors or the pen is in the drawer.

Either the pen or the scissors are in the drawer.

Positive & Negative Subjects Rule: When a sentence contains a positive and a negative subject and one is singular and the other plural, the verb must agree with the positive subject.

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Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)
  3. Orange indicates the negative subject

The department members but not the chair have decided not to teach on Valentine’s Day.

It is not the faculty members but the president who decides this issue.

It was the speaker, not his ideas, that has provoked the students to riot.

Words That Indicate Portions Rule: Words that express a unit or portion are sometimes singular and sometimes plural, depending on the meaning.

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Partial List of Portion Words
a lot
a majority of
a part of
a percentage of
a third
all
any
half of
more
more than one
most
some
Examples:
Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. Blue indicates the plural (subject and/or verb)

Some of the voters are still angry.

A large percentage of the older population is voting against her.


Two-fifths of the troops were lost in the battle.

Two-fifths of the vineyard was destroyed by fire.


Forty percent of the students are in favor of changing the policy.

Forty percent of the student body is in favor of changing the policy.


A lot of the pie has disappeared.

A lot of the pies have disappeared.

Rule: The expression more than one modifies the actual subject which is singular, which takes a singular verb.
Legend:

  1. Green indicates the singular (subject and/or verb)
  2. White-on-Green indicates the fractional expression

More than one student has tried this.

More than one dog has been put down in the past week.

More than one drink has found its way down his gullet.

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