Before we move on to the main concept of subject verb agreement, we will discuss the definition of a sentence.
A sentence is a group of words that make complete sense. A sentence also must have an appropriate punctuation mark. Without an appropriate punctuation mark, the sentence may be considered grammatically incorrect or incomplete.
Let’s take a few examples of a sentence:
Example 1: She went to the market to buy a washing machine.
Example 2: She went to the market.
Example 3: She went.
All of the above are examples of a complete sentence. A sentence may be simple, compound or complex; but it must necessarily have a subject and a verb. Without a subject and a finite verb, a sentence cannot be created. So, in the English language, a subject and a verb are the two minimum requirements to frame a complete sentence.
Subject Verb Agreement
The subject and the verb must agree both in number and person. This is the only principle which governs the Subject Verb Agreement in a Sentence.
The table below explains that rule:
|Third Person||He, She , It||is||They||are|
As highlighted in the above table, the changes in the verb are governed both by the Person and by the Number of the subject.
The Person rule is simple and straightforward, but the number rule is subject to a few exceptions. We will later discuss those exceptions in detail.
What can be a subject in a sentence? Here is a table that highlights the various forms in which a subject might appear.
|Form of subject||Example|
|Noun (phrase) or pronoun||The large car stopped outside our house.|
|A gerund (phrase)||His constant hammering was annoying.|
|A to-infinitive (phrase)||To read is easier than to write.|
|A full that-clause||That he had traveled the world was known to everyone.|
|A free relative clause||Whatever he did was always of interest.|
|A direct quotation||I love you is often heard these days.|
|Zero (but implied) subject||Take out the trash!|
|An expletive||It is Sunday.|
To identify the subject, one must spot the verb and ask a question that the verb along with the predicate is supposed to answer. The answer that one would get is the Subject of the sentence.
Example 1: The large car stopped outside the house- What stopped outside the house? The Large car.
Example 2: His constant hammering was annoying- What was annoying? His constant hammering
Example 3: To read is easier than to write-What is easier than to write? To read
Example 4: That he had travelled the world was known to everyone-What was known to everyone? That he travelled the world.
Example 5: Whatever he did was always of interest-What was always of Interest? Whatever he did.
Example 6: I love you is often heard these days- What is often heard these days? I love you
Example 7: The subject is implied. It is not visible. ‘Take out the trash!’ can be rephrased as ‘You take out the trash.’ Who should take out the trash- You.
Example 8: It is Sunday. Here ‘it’ is just a filler and has no meaning. The subject is ‘Sunday’. What is it? It is Sunday.
Countable and Uncountable Nouns: Count nouns or countable nouns are common nouns that can take a plural, can combine with numerals or counting quantifiers (e.g., one, two, several, every, most), and can take an indefinite article such as a or an (in languages which have such articles). Examples of count nouns are chair, nose, and occasion.
Mass nouns or uncountable (or non-count) nouns differ from count nouns in precisely that respect: they cannot take plurals or combine with number words or the above type of quantifiers. For example, it is not possible to refer to a furniture or three furnitures. This is true even though the pieces of furniture comprising furniture could be counted. Thus the distinction between mass and count nouns should not be made in terms of what sorts of things the nouns refer to, but rather in terms of how the nouns present these entities.
Many nouns have both countable and uncountable uses; for example, beer is countable in “give me three beers”, but uncountable in “he likes beer”
Examples of countable nouns: boy, boys; child, children; alumnus, alumni; tooth, teeth; criterion, criteria; basis, bases; etc.
Examples of uncountable nouns: knowledge, information, water, air, garbage, money, etc.
Since countable nouns can be counted, they have singular and plural forms. Uncountable nouns on the other hand are always singular.
Subject Verb Agreement (SVA) is one of the most important principles of standard and grammatically correct English. Sentences with incorrect subject verb agreement are considered fundamentally flawed.
The subject and the verb are the elements that represent the most important information in the sentence; remove either the subject or the verb, and you have a sentence that is incomplete, incorrect and incomprehensible.
The SVA rule says that: If the subject of the sentence is singular, then the corresponding verb must also be singular; similarly, if the subject of the sentence is plural, then the corresponding verb must also be plural. Compare:
The teacher is from India. (The subject here is a singular noun ‘The teacher’)
The teachers are from India. (The subject here is a plural noun ‘The teachers’)
In both the cases above, we have a simple subject ‘The teacher/the teachers’; but the subject of the sentence may not always be simple. When the subject of the sentence is complex, the verb must agree with the main noun in that in the subject.
Many leading members of the club have accused me of ignoring the long-term interests of the club.
Here we have a complex subject: Many leading members of the club. The main noun in this subject is ‘members’. Since the main noun is plural, the verb is plural.
The only man who is capable of doing this is he.
Here we have a complex subject: The only man who is capable of doing this. The main noun of the subject is ‘man’. Since the main noun is singular, the verb is singular.
The reader or the writer must develop the habit of spotting the subject and its corresponding verb in a glance.
We have seen that the subject could be a simple noun, plural or singular; or the subject could be a complex phrase with many modifiers. When our ideas are simple, the subjects usually are very simple, but when out ideas are complex, the subjects may in turn become complex.
Man is a social animal (‘man’ is the subject without any modifier)
The modern man is a social animal (‘man’ is the main subject with two modifiers: the, modern)
The man with a sense of humor is a social animal (‘man’ is the main subject with three modifiers: the, man, and the prepositional phrase ‘with a sense of humor’)
Subject Verb Agreement Rules:
- Beware of the “Error of Proximity”.
The quality of the oranges were not good-Incorrect
The quality of the oranges was not good-Correct
Here the subject of the sentence is ‘The quality’ and not ‘the oranges’
The state of his affairs were such as to cause anxiety to his creditors-Incorrect
The state of his affairs was such as to cause anxiety to his creditors-Correct
His knowledge of Indian Vernaculars are far beyond the common-Incorrect
His knowledge of Indian Vernaculars is far beyond the common-Correct
- Two or more singular nouns or pronouns joined by and require a plural verb.
Gold and Silver are precious metals.
She and I were playing hide and seek.
Love and power cannot go hand in hand.
- If the nouns suggest one idea to the mind, or refer to the same person or thing, the verb is singular
Rajma and Chawal is my favourite dish.
War and Peace is one of the greatest novels ever written
The rise and fall of the tide is due to lunar influence.
The horse and the carriage is at the door.
- Words joined to a singular subject by with, as well as, etc., add unnecessary or extra information to the subject and therefore must be followed by a singular verb.
French, as well as German, was taught here.
The ship, with its crew, was lost.
He along with his friends has gone for a movie.
- Proximity Rule: This rule is applicable where two or more subjects are connected by: or, either…or, neither…nor. The subject that is closest to the verb decides the number of the verb.
Our happiness or our sorrow is largely due to our actions.
Neither praise nor blame seems to affect him.
Neither my uncle nor my aunts are coming.
Either my sisters or my brother is responsible.
Either he or I am mistaken.
- Either, neither, each, everyone, many a must be followed by a singular verb.
Each of these substances is found in India
Everyone has come.
Many a man has done so.
Neither of the two men was very strong
He asked me whether either of the applicants was suitable.
- Two nouns qualified by each and every, even though connected by and, require a singular verb
Every boy and every girl was given a packet of sweets.
- Some nouns which are plural in form but singular meaning take a singular verb.
The news is true
The wages of sin is death
Mathematics is easier than Physics
- A collective noun takes a singular verb when the collection is thought of as one whole; plural verb when the individuals of which it is composed are thought of.
The committee has issues its report.
The committee are divided on one minor point.
- When the plural noun is a proper name for some single object or some collective unit, it must be followed by a singular verb.
The United States has a big navy.
The Arabian Nights is still my favorite book.
- When the plural noun denotes some specific quantity or amount considered as a whole, the verb is generally singular.
Ten kilometers is not a long distance.
Fifty thousand rupees is a large sum.
- Words such as glasses, pants, pliers, and scissors are regarded as plural (and require plural verbs) unless they’re preceded the phrase pair of (in which case the word pair becomes the subject).
My glasses were on the bed
My pants were torn
A pair of scissors is in the closet (the reader must note that in this case, the subject is ‘a pair’, which is singular; hence the verb should also be singular)
- Usually, all indefinite pronouns are singular, with a few exceptions (to know more about pronouns and indefinite pronouns, please read the article on Pronouns)
Some of the chief indefinite pronouns are: each, either, none, one, some, few, many, all etc.
A number of compounds are sometimes classed as indefinite pronouns; as, anybody, anything, everybody, everything, nothing, somebody, something and a few more.
Each of the girls is good at singing (the subject here is the indefinite pronoun ‘each’)
Either of the girls is good at singing (the subject here is the indefinite pronoun ‘either’)
Everyone is good at singing (the subject here is the indefinite pronoun ‘everyone’)
The Pronouns ‘some, all, any, none, most’ may refer to both countable nouns and uncountable nouns.
Some of the boys are rich
Some of the milk has leaked
All of the boys are rich
All of the milk has leaked
Most of the boys are rich
Most of the milk has leaked
We observe that in each set the verb is singular or plural, depending on the noun to which the pronoun refers.