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Subject and Verb Agreement Errors

Introduction

The subject and the main verb work as a team. That’s why they have to match in person and number.

Take the following sentence:

Bob drives a truck.

Bob is a third person singular noun, and so the verb (drives) is singular. This harmony between subject and verb is called agreement.

Mistakes often occur when the verb doesn’t come right after the subject:

Incorrect: Each of the soldiers in captain Corcoran’s company were awarded the purple cross.

In this case the verb should be was awarded, as each is singular. There are plenty of other tricky cases, and we’ll review them one by one.

The Rules

And

Whenever you connect two nouns with and, you end up with a plural subject. In such cases the verb should be plural too:

Sonja and Jason were overjoyed that their names are anagrams of each other.

According to Nietzsche, socialism and Christianity have a lot in common.

There is, however, an exception to this rule. Sometimes a compound subject refers to a single thing, in which case it takes a singular verb:

The conductor and harpsichordist was Ton Koopman.

My muse and inspiration is, as always, my dear wife Catherine.

As you can see, in each case the subject actually refers to just one person.

Tip: Watch out for phrases such as along with and as well as. These prepositional phrases are not part of the subject and do not function like and to form a compound subject.

Here’s an example:

Sarah, along with the rest of her siblings, has the measles.

Or and Nor

You can also use or and nor to connect the parts of the subject.

When you use one of these conjunctions as part of your subject, the verb should agree in number with the closest noun in the subject:

In Mongolia, an Ovoo or Obo is a sacred stone cairn.

Neither William nor his teammates were able to explain why the coach’s tires were slashed.

A cookie or some crackers are great. Thank you!

Neither Larry nor Lucifer is a good name for your son.

The examples also show that if the subject contains both singular and plural nouns it usually sounds most natural to place the plural noun last, closest to the verb. Compare the following sentences:

Neither the principal nor the teachers are going to the conference on bullying.

Neither the teachers nor the principal is going to the conference on bullying.

The first option is preferred.

The same principle applies if the nouns in the subject change not in number but in person. In the following example, the subject consists of a third person noun (Amelia) and a first person pronoun (I):

Neither Amelia nor I am happy about the divorce.

While this is grammatically correct, it sounds terribly awkward, so you may want to rephrase anyway.

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns refer to a single group that contains multiple people or objects. For example, a crowd is singular even though it contains numerous people.

Collective nouns normally take a singular verb:

The board of appeal has made its decision.

The class was dismissed.

Very rarely a collective noun can take a plural verb:

The jury are going home to their families.

In such cases we’re talking about the individual members of the group.

More Tricky Nouns

In addition to collective nouns, there are some other nouns that also take unusual forms.

1. First of all, nouns like scissors, pants, or glasses are plural, even though they refer to just one thing:

My glasses are missing.

However, if you use the word pair with them then you’ll need a singular verb:

A pair of binoculars was found in the washroom.

2. Watch out as well for nouns that end in s, but are actually singular. Here are some common categories and examples:

illnesses: measles, diabetes

subjects: linguistics, economics, classics, physics

games: billiards, darts

other: politics, species, news

These nouns generally take a singular verb:

Billiards was never included in the Olympics.

Your next news is at seven.

3. A few of these nouns (e.g., news) also belong to yet another tricky group: uncountable nouns. Even though they refer to a quantity of something, we cannot divide them into their component parts. Here are some examples of uncountable nouns:

Milk
Luggage
Music
Money
Water

Such nouns also take a singular verb:

The water tastes funny.

Our elevator music consists of the soundtrack to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

4. Finally, a few nouns borrowed from Latin and Greek that end in a are considered plural:

Criteria
Phenomena
Strata

Don’t assume, though, that a final a means the word is plural. An amoeba, for instance, is a single cell. In addition, words like media and data can be singular or plural, depending on the context.

Reversed Order

Sometimes the verb comes before the subject. However, the same rules for agreement still apply:

In that dilapidated house lives a dissipated poet. (a poet lives)

Watch out especially for expletives (phrases like there is, there are, and it is). Here the real subject comes after the verb:

There are three deer grazing in the backyard. (subject: three deer)

There is a small chance that it might rain. (subject: a small chance)

It is time to curb spending. (subject: time)

Be careful, though, when the verb is followed by two singular nouns that together form the subject:

There is a Jehovah’s Witness and a Mormon at the door.

In such cases the verb is usually singular. On the other hand, if you reverse the sentence (which may sound more natural), then the verb becomes plural:

A Jehovah’s Witness and a Mormon are at the door.

Indefinite Pronouns

Often the subject will include an indefinite pronoun. The tricky thing is that a few indefinite pronouns can be singular or plural.

Indefinite Pronouns

When checking for agreement, watch out especially for the indefinite pronouns in the last column. The following examples show how these pronouns can be singular or plural:

All of the money is spent. (money is singular)

All of the shows are sold out. (shows is plural)

Some of the money is already allocated. (some refers to a single amount of money)

Some of our members object (members is plural)

In these cases, context is everything.

The trickiest indefinite pronoun, though, is none. Literally it means not one, and so should be singular, yet we often use it to mean not any, in which case it would be plural. That’s why both of the following sentences are correct.

None of the sheep in the pasture has been sheared yet. (meaning not one)

None of the sheep in the pasture have been sheared yet. (meaning not any)

Number

When we use the word number in the subject, it’s the article (a or the) that determines whether the subject is singular or plural:

A number of doves were acting hawkish. (plural)

The number of Sumatran rhinos is dwindling rapidly. (singular)

In these examples, a number means some or quite a few, whereas the number refers to a single amount.

The same rule applies to words such as minority and majority.

Relative Pronouns

The relative pronouns who, which, and that allow you to relate extra information.

They typically refer back to a previous noun phrase (the antecedent) and are followed by a verb:

My new tutor is Jenny’s father, who speaks fluent Italian.

In this case who refers back to father (singular), and so the verb speaks is also singular.

Watch out especially for phrases that start with one of. In such cases the verb can be singular or plural, depending on what it refers back to:

I learned how to dress one of those mannequins that are on display in the store window.

I learned how to use chopsticks from one of my friends who is Taiwanese.

In other words, it’s up to you to figure out what the real antecedent is.

Linking Verbs

When you use a linking verb, make sure it agrees with the preceding subject, and not with the subject complement:

My art project is a sculpture and a painting of my boyfriend.

On a side note, you can often replace linking verbs with more specific verbs. In this case you might pick consists of.

Titles

If you mention a title or draw attention to a particular word then you should make the verb singular:

The Grapes of Wrath is rather depressing.

I think that Dances with Wolves presents a romanticized view of native Americans.

The word ultracrepidarians refers to people who offer their opinion on matters they know little about.

Even though the title or word contains a plural noun, the verb remains singular.