- What is subject-verb agreement?
In a sentence, a verb must agree with a subject in person (first, second, or third) and in number (singular or plural). For the verb work, the verb form changes depending on the subject: we say "I work" or "he works". We call this subject-verb agreement.
Agreement is easy when the subject is clear and is placed right beside the verb, but occasionally the writer can misidentify the subject or lose sight of it completely.
There are many words in the English language that are difficult to identify as plural; bacteria, data, media, and criteria are just a few.
In this example, the subject and verb are in italics.
In judging managerial style, the most important criteria is concern for relationships with people. [Incorrect sentence]
criteria = plural subject
is = verb for singular subject
In this sentence, the subject and verb do not agree, since "criteria" is a plural word. The singular is "criterion".
If you were to replace the word "criteria" with a pronoun, the pronoun would be "they", not "it". Would you write, "They is"? No, it would be "They are". So, in the above sentence, the subject would have to be "criterion" to match the verb form "is".
In judging managerial style, the most important criterion is concern for relationships with people. [Correct sentence]
Picking the Correct Verb Form
For the tricky verb forms, how do we figure out what is the correct verb form for the subject?
One way to do this is to ask yourself, would I replace this subject, for example "criterion", with " he", "she", "it" or with "they"?
In this case, "criterion" would be replaced by an "it". Then try asking yourself, what verb form would I use with "it" as the subject? Would I say "It is" or "It are"? We usually know right away using the pronoun.
Writers can often have trouble with subject-verb agreement when they wish to refer to more than one subject in a sentence.
Computers, film and television influences the attention span of adolescents. [Incorrect sentence]
Computers, film and television = subjects
influences = verb for singular subject
This sentence has more than one subject, or a compound subject: computers, film and television.
If you replace "computers, film and television" with its pronoun, "they”, then you would write "they influence", not “they influences”. So, "influence" is the correct form of the verb.
Computers, film and television influence the attention span of adolescents. [Correct sentence]
Nouns like family, government, group, audience, staff, faculty, team, and company are usually considered to be singular words. A government may be made up of people, but together these people form one unit or entity: the government. Therefore, government is a singular word, and the pronoun you would use to replace it is "it" not "they".
All of these sentences are correct:
My family is crazy.
This government runs full page ads in major daily newspapers.
The faculty is happy with the new contract.
Occasionally, one of these collective or entity words may be used in a context that emphasizes or implies the individuals making up the entity.
My family are taking holidays at different times of the year. [Correct sentence]
"Family" is not an "it" in this sentence, but a "they". So, as we would write, "They are taking", this sentence is considered correct.
Writers occasionally lose track of the subjects of their sentences, making subject-verb agreement difficult. Words may intervene between the subject and the verb, distracting the writer, who reacts by making the verb agree with an adjacent noun that is not the subject.
The most difficult thing about living in the barrens are the sudden snowstorms. [Incorrect sentence]
The subject is not "barrens" but "thing", which is singular.
The most difficult thing about living in the barrens is the sudden snowstorms. [Correct sentence]
In The Rape of the Lock, Pope implies that stiffened hoops bound with whalebone is not enough to guard a lady's virtue. [Incorrect sentence]
The writer has made the verb agree with "whalebone" not with the actual subject, "hoops".
In The Rape of the Lock, Pope implies that stiffened hoops bound with whalebone are not enough to guard a lady's virtue. [Correct sentence]
Indefinite pronouns are pronouns that do not by themselves refer to a specific person or thing.
Singular Indefinite Pronouns:
- anybody, anyone, anything
- each, each one
- everybody, everyone, everything
- either, neither
- nobody, no one, nothing
- one, another, other
- somebody, someone, something
In the following sentences, a singular indefinite pronoun is the subject and the verb that agrees with the subject is in the singular form.
All of these sentences are correct:
Each child is special in his or her own way.
Is anybody there?
Everybody is happy.
Either Jim or Martin is telling a lie.
Neither you nor I is completely right in this argument.
An incorrect example:
Neither of these organizations deliver effective aid to developing countries. [Incorrect sentence]
The subject in this sentence is not "organizations", the word right before the verb. The subject is "neither", the singular indefinite pronoun. Think of it as a "it" not a "they". You would write, "It delivers" not "It deliver".
Neither of these organizations delivers effective aid to developing countries. [Correct sentence]