The Easy Guide to English Subject-Verb Agreement
Verbs and their subjects must agree: This is called subject-verb agreement.
What does subject-verb agreement mean?
Agreement in grammar occurs when a word must be in a particular form to relate correctly to the words around it.
In Standard English, verbs and their subjects must agree in two ways: in person and in number.
Person: I is a subject pronoun and first person singular. We is a subject pronoun and first person plural.
Number: Am is a singular verb. Are is a plural verb.
Those seem easy enough, but about the trickier cases? Here we go.
Names can be plural (end in s --or i in Latin) but refer to only one person, place, or thing. Don’t worry! The reasons are easy to understand.
Here are some examples:
Mumps is a common childhood disease.
Mumps is the name of a single disease, so it is a singular noun despite the “s” on the end.
There are some other names that are plural (ending with “s”) which require singular verbs.
The United Nations (capitalized) is a single organization rather than multiple nations, so it is treated as a singular noun:
The United Nations is in New York City.
Where is The United Nations? It is in New York City.
A different usage of these same words “the united nations”:
The united nations against Hitler were able to defeat him together.
The nations united against Hitler were able to defeat him together.
Here we are referring to multiple nations which were united, not the name of any organization.
Whether indefinite pronouns--and other determiners--are singular, plural, or can be used for both is usually obvious, but these can also be tricky sometimes.
Let’s start with a straightforward example:
Nobody is home.
No one would say, “Nobody are home.” Nobody is always singular, no doubt about that. It means “Not a single body is home.”
What about the tricky example we mentioned?
Everybody is home.
Now, wait a minute. When we use “everybody,” we imagine more than one person. Why isn’t “everybody” plural? Why don’t we say, “Everybody are home” ?
That’s because every [single] body is home. “Every” ONE is home. Yes, that’s right “everyone” is also singular!
Here is another example of a singular determiner that is always used in the context of more than one.
Each of these rings is special to me.
Each or rings: How can we know which is the subject?
of these rings is a prepositional phrase or a phrase starting with a preposition.
Remember that prepositional phrases never contain subjects of verbs. You could rethink sentences this way to decide which words are the subjects of your verbs: simply remove all prepositional phrases.
Each is special to me.
Now for the last of our "tricky" examples:
Numbers greater than one usually require a plural verb.
“Why usually?” you ask, “Don’t numbers greater than one always require plural verbs?
Let’s look back at the example of mumps.
Let’s check your understanding:
Two is/are a plural number.
The answer is is. Why?
That’s because the word number is singular in the sentence and two is the name of the number.
Normally numbers greater than one are used to refer to plural nouns and require plural verbs:
Two people are coming to dinner.
We can simplify that in this way:
Two are coming to dinner.
Here we know two refers to two people.
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