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Writing: Style & Grammar

This Guide was created as a joint project of the Academic Resource Center and the William H. Hannon Library. It is being used here with permission from ARC.

Directed Learning: Subject-Verb Agreement

What is the basic rule of subject-verb agreement?

Verbs must agree with their subjects in number (singular or plural).

            The president is onboard Air Force 1 at this moment. (singular subject & verb)

            Many presidents have traveled on Air Force 1. (plural subject & verb)


Seems fairly simple, right?  Wrong because problems arise when it is difficult to figure out if the subject is singular or plural or even what the subject is.  Read on. . . 

When words come between the subject and verb, make the verb agree with the subject

         The samples on the tray in the lab need testing.

The words, on the tray in the lab come between the subject samples and the verb need. Strip away these modifiers, and you will isolate the noun that is in fact the subject. 

Treat most subjects joined with and as plural.

            Georgia O’Keeffe and Vincent Van Gogh are my favorite artists.

            Freedom and justice are not for sale.

Be careful with phrases as well as, along with, in addition to, together with. They don’t make a singular subject plural.


             The school board, as well as the stakeholders, were pleased with the plans.


Make linking verbs agree with subjects, not with a subject complement.

            A major force in today’s economy is women.  

(Force= subject; women= subject complement)


            A tent and a sleeping bag are required equipment for all campers.

(Tent and sleeping bag= subject ; equipment= subject complement)


Make verbs agree with compound subjects. 

When the parts of the subject form a single unit or when they refer to the same person or thing, treat the subject as singular. 

            Strawberries and cream was a last-minute addition to the menu.

            Drinking and driving is the number one concern of MADD.


Treat collective nouns as singular unless the meaning is clearly plural.

Collective nouns such as class, staff, jury, committee, audience, crowd, family refer to a group. Collective nouns usually take a singular verb because they emphasize the group as a unit. Sometimes, when there is a reason to draw attention to the individual members of the group, a collective noun may be treated as plural.


            Singular: The staff is meeting at the restaurant for the party.

            Plural: The staff were willing to wait for their raises.


Use singular for subjects that are quantities thought of as a unit or single amount.

            Twenty-six kilometers is the distance in a marathon.

            A million dollars is more than I need.


Make the verb agree with its subject even when the subject follows the verb.

Verbs ordinarily follow subjects. When this normal order is reversed, it is easy to become confused. Sentences beginning with there is or there are (or there was or there were) are inverted; the subject follows the verb.


            There are surprisingly few children in our neighborhood.
            There were a social worker and a crew of twenty volunteers at the scene of the accident. 


For improved style, it’s better to rewrite this sentence and eliminate There were…  

            A social worker and a crew of twenty volunteers were at the scene of the accident.


Who, which, and that are relative pronouns.  When in a subject position, they take verbs that agree with their antecedents (nouns to which they refer).


            Chocolate chips are the primary ingredient that goes into chocolate chip cookies.


The subject of the verb goes is that.  That is a relative pronoun referring to the noun ingredient.  Ingredient takes a singular verb, so that must also take a singular verb – goes.

            Sugar and butter are also ingredients that go into chocolate chip cookies.


The subject of the verb go is that. That is a relative pronoun referring to the noun ingredients Ingredients takes a plural verb, so that must also take a plural verb – go.


When plural subjects are joined with either/or, neither/nor, make the verb agree with the subject closest to the verb.

            If an infant or a child is having difficulty breathing, seek medical attention immediately.

            A driver’s license or two credit cards are required.

            Two credit cards or a driver’s license is required.


            Neither the students nor the lab assistant was able to download the information.

            Neither the lab assistant nor the students were able to download the information.


Agreement with Quantifiers

Every, each, each of, everybody/everyone, anybody/anyone, no one/nobody, somebody/someone, one, neither. These words may appear to have plural meanings, but in formal written English, they are nearly always treated as singular words. 


            Each of the players wants to win.

            Everyone on the team supports the coach.

            Neither of the boys wants to leave.

            Anybody who wants to come to the game can come.


A few quantifiers (all, any, none, some) may be singular or plural depending on the noun/pronoun they refer to.


            Some of our luggage is lost.                          Some of the rocks are slippery.

            None of this advice makes sense.               None of the eggs were broken.


Tricky Case:
             Singular: The number of teenagers reading books is declining.

              Plural: A number of college graduates are applying for jobs.


Be careful with some words that end in –s. They look plural, but take a singular verb, for example, athleticseconomicsmathematicsphysicspoliticsstatisticsmeasles, and news.


            Politics is risky business.

            Measles is still a common disease.


Tricky:  Occasionally some of these words may have plural meanings.


            Office politics often sway decisions about hiring and promotion. 

            The economics of the building plan are prohibitive. 


Titles of works, company names, words mentioned as words, and gerund phrases are singular.

Lost Cities describes the discoveries of many ancient civilizations. 

Delmonico Brothers specializes in organic produce and additive-free meats. 



Directed Learning Activity: Subject-Verb Agreement

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