In English, verbs agree with their subjects, which is called subject-verb agreement or concord. Verbs agree with subjects with regard to person and number. The main focus of this article is 3rd person, as this causes most difficulties for writers and for learners of English.
- 1st: First person singular I
- 1pl: First person plural we
- 2sg/2pl: Second person singular/plural you
- 3sg: Third person singular he, she, it
- 3pl: Third person plural they
Regular verbs uses the base form for all these, except for the -s ending for third person singular (3sg), e.g.:
- She goes, she is going, she is gone.
Some irregular verbs have special forms for just the 3sg.
- is, has, does
At least one common irregular verb, the be verb, as special forms for the 1sg and 3sg in the simple past.
- I was, you were, she was, we were, they were
Simple agreement can be seen in the following examples.
- The fly is now on the bagel.
- The flies are now on the bagel.
- The fly was on the bagel.
- The flies were on the bagel.
- The fly is eating the bagel.
- The flies are eating the bagel.
- A politician generally lies.
- Politicians generally lie.
- A stoplight is a device that turns red when you approach it.
- Stoplights are devices that turn red when you approach them.
Writers and learners need to be wary of the following situations that cause confusion.
- Subject complements
Subject complements are the noun phrases of predicates after a linking verb (copula) like forms of the verbs to be. However, verbs agree with subjects rather than predicate complements.
- The gift that he gave to his coworker was dishes.
2 Collective nouns
In Commonwealth English (i.e., English of the UK, Australia and New Zealand), nouns with a group or collective meaning can be treat as plural, while these are more often singular in American English, unless the speaker wishes to focus on the plural members. Such nouns include family, choir, team, majority, minority, government and others.
- I know that our government is / are letting our troops down.
- The city council has / have decided to acquire the abandoned property.
- The soccer team is / are playing quite well this year.
- If the new band becomes / become popular, they will to on tour next month.
- The committee has / have decided on a new manager.
- The Labour Party have elected a new leader.
- The United States is / are sending a new ambassador.
- Our family have all our separate ways.
The noun data is a special case. It is a Latin plural, from the singular datum (a piece of data or information), which is rarely used. In informal English, it is treated as a singular collective noun, while in academic English (especially in quantitative research fields) it is treated as plural. It can thus distinguish speakers of informal from academic style.
- The data is / are not supportive of these conclusions.
- The data looks good to me.
3 Prepositional phrases
Verbs agree with their grammatical subjects; they do not agree with nouns in prepositional phrases before the verb. A check mark ✔️ indicates a correct form; a red X indicates an incorrect form.
- ✔️ High levels of mercury occur in some fish.
- X High levels of mercury occurs in some fish.
- ✔️ High levels of heavy metal occur in some lakes here.
- X High levels of heavy metal occurs in some lakes here.
- ✔️ A high level of heavy metal occurs in some lakes here.
- X A high level of heavy metal occur in some lakes here.
4 Factual & conceptual subjects
Subjects like these may not be quite as they seem, or their agreement may depend on the intended meaning.
- Singular nouns that look like plurals
- Mumps was once a common disease before vaccinations.
- Pediatrics is the study of child medicine and treatment; physics is the study of matter, energy, motion, and forces; and acoustics is the scientific study of sound and sound transmission.
- Numerical subjects - Amounts and quantities
Expressions of quantity or amount are considered a single unit and require a singular verb, such as noun phrases referring to measurements, amounts of money, or units of time.
- Two plus two is four.
- Five euros is equal to a little more than six dollars.
- Five euros is the sale price for those socks.
- Eight hundred meters is not a long jog.
- Seventeen minutes is what the instructions say.
This includes partitive expressions with numerals, that is, noun phrase expressions in the form of NUMERAL of X. However, if the noun phrase is intended to refer to a plurality, such as a plural group of people or items, then the verb is plural.
- Eighty percent of the chocolate cake was eaten, but only ten percent of the vanilla cake was.
- Millions of dollars were spent on this year's presidential campaign.
- Fifty-four percent of the students have voted for the centrist candidate.
- Conceptual subjects
Here the agreement depends on the intended meaning, and both options are possible depending on the speaker's intention. "Many cars on the road" could refer to the plurality of cars, or to the situation of many cars being on the road; "high production costs" could refer to the costs themselves, or to the situation more generally.
- Many cars on the road mean/means many traffic accidents.
- High production costs prevent/prevents reasonable consumer prices.
5 Compound & coordinate subjects
- Compound subjects
Compound subjects consist of two more more nouns joined with and, which usually take a plural verb.
- Vanilla and cinnamon are delicious together.
- The construction plus the bad weather have made for a weak market.
If both nouns of the compound subject refer logically to the same thing, then the verb is singular.
- The creator and producer of the film was hurt by an accident while filming.
- The cause of and solution to all of our problems is alcohol.
This agreement rule for compound subjects is more noticeably violated, especially in colloquial English, when the compound subject logically refers to, or is intended to refer to, two things that form a singular whole. That is, the compound subject refers to a singular concept.
- Bacon and eggs is my favorite breakfast.
- Coordinate noun phrases
These are noun phrases joined by or, and the verb usually agrees with the last noun.
- The British guy or the Frenchman are going to win.
- The Frenchmen or the British guy is going to win.
- Either the Brit or the Frenchmen are going to win.
6 Indefinites and partitives
- Partitive expressions
These are expressions that indicate a part of a group or item, such as a part of / number of X. Whether the verb is singular or plural depends on the intended meaning. With some partitive nouns, the singular/plural status is determined by the noun modified by the partitive expression, i.e., whether the noun X in a part of / number of X is singular or plural, e.g., for remainder, rest, number.
- The rest of the map was covered with coffee stains.
- The remainder of this article seems to get lost in tangential issues.
- The remainder of the students are on a waiting list.
- The rest of the books were donated to the county library.
- A number of job applicants have arrived early due to the high demand for jobs at this company.
The quantity expressions a lot of and lots of are equivalent to the quantifier many, and thus are often plural.
- A lot of job applicants have arrived early due to the high demand for jobs at this company.
- Lots of job applicants have arrived early due to the high demand for jobs at this company.
Similar expressions are the/a number of, a/the majority of, a variety of, a handful of. Their meaning can be plural, especially when modifying a plural noun. However, that depends on whether these are intended as plural quantifiers, or whether the focus is on the first noun such as the number or variety as the intended subject.
- The number of freelancers in the workforce is growing ever day. (logical SUBJECT = 'number')
- A number of freelancers are actually looking for full-time work. (logical SUBJECT = 'freelancers')
- A number of elements are intertwined.
- Indefinite pronouns
The same pattern as above also applies to certain indefinite pronouns such as some, all, and the quantifier enough, where the singular/plural status of the whole noun phrase often depends on the status of the modified noun.
- Some of the laptops were damaged.
- All of the new books were gone.
- Some of the water is contaminated.
- Enough of the file was salvageable.
- Enough of the files were retrieved.
- Indefinite singular / plural and partitive
Confusion arises with certain indefinite pronouns like each and none. By themselves, these seem to be singular, but they can often refer to a plural antecedent, and in informal and spoken English, English speakers naturally use plural verbs when they logically refer to a subject that is conceptually plural. However, traditional prescriptive grammarians, or "grammar Nazis" like to insist that these indefinite pronouns are strictly grammatically singular, and insist on using a singular verb. This leads to overly formal, hyper-formal, and even unnatural sounding expressions, which nonetheless some teachers and editors insist on. If a teacher, professor, or editor insists on these overly formal expressions, it is often easier to simply go along with their demands, but sometimes you can point out that these are arbitrary rules that English speakers often do not follow (see the note below).
- He ate all of his peas; none is left on the plate. (hyper-formal style)
- He ate all of his peas; none are left on the plate. (natural & informal style)
- Each of the students is supposed to bring his/her test booklet. (hyper-formal style)
- Each of the students are supposed to bring their test booklet. (natural / informal style)
- The books are copyrighted; none is reproducible without permission. (hyper-formal style)
- The books are copyrighted; none are reproducible without permission. (natural / informal style)
- Three of the actors appeared in court, while two others gave written depositions. None of them was in court to hear the ruling. (hyper-formal style)
- Three of the actors appeared in court, while two others gave written depositions. None of them were in court to hear the ruling. (natural / informal style)
- Gender agreement
Problems arise with the indefinite pronouns everyone, anyone, someone and agreement with verbs and possessive pronouns, as using only his can be gender-biased. To avoid gender bias, colloquial English uses singular verbs with these indefinites, but plural possessive markers. Using the plural possessive they is an example of the gender-neutral singular they that is common in informal English. Formal English, especially written English, would use expressions like his/her, which are too formal or long for colloquial English.
- Everyone in the group is required to show their identification. (colloquial / informal)
- Everyone in the group is required to show his/her identification. (formal)
- Each student is supposed to bring their own test booklet. (colloquial / informal)
- Each student is supposed to bring his/her own test booklet. (formal)
This problem can be circumvented by making everything plural.
- All persons in the group are required to show their identification. (plural; formal & informal)
- All students are supposed to bring their their own test booklets. (plural; formal & informal)
Some of the overly formal rules above come from the tradition of prescriptive grammar from the 1700s or 1800s, when some grammarians imposed arbitrary rules based on their preferences, or their desires for English grammar to conform to a expectation of logic, or even preferences based on their study of Latin grammar, leading to inappropriately applying Latin patterns to English. This lead to arbitrary rules against the singular they Throughout the history of the language, English speakers have used singular they, including the possessive singular their to avoid gender bias, and using none and each with plural verbs when the subject referred to is conceptually or logically plural.
7 Sentence inversion
- Inverted sentences
Inverted sentences are sentences where a prepositional phrase, adverb phrase, or adjective phrase begins the sentence, followed immediately by the verb, with the subject placed right after the verb. This is done for narrative effect. The verb must still agree with the subject, and not with the inverted phrase.
- On the fields stands a solitary flag. (flag stands)
- On the field stand several flags. (flags stand)
- There is/are
In sentences beginning with there is/are, the subject comes after the verb. These are essentially inverted sentences, and again, the verb agrees with the following subject.
- There is a unicorn in my garden! (unicorn is)
- There are leprechauns in my garden! (leprechauns are)"