Subjects and verbs are just like people. They have to agree with each other in order to work well together.

What does it mean for subjects and verbs to agree?

Well, before we look at subject-verb agreement, let’s first take a look at a very important concept. We need to understand point of view before we can appreciate how to make subjects and verbs agree.

Point of View

You may have heard someone talking about what “person” something is written in. For example, a book may be written in first person. Or, it may be in second person, or third person.

First person is when you are writing from your own point of view. You use words like “I,” “me,” or “my.”

I leaned over gently and brushed the insect off my shoe.

Second person is when you address your reader or listener when you write or speak. You use the words “you,” “your,” and “yours.”

For your own safety, you should always follow directions.

Third person is when you refer to someone not in the “conversation.” You use words like “he,” “she,” “it,” “the neighbor,” “the girl,” “the driver,” and “the boss.”

Why did Tammy leave her desk drawer unlocked?

These examples are for the singulars, that is, first-person singular, second-person singular, and third-person singular. We also have plurals.

The following chart will help show the “persons” of point of view:

  Singular Plural
First Person I, me, my, myself, mine we, us, our, ours, ourselves
Second Person you, your, yourself, yours you, your, yourself, yours (when speaking to a group of people)
Third Person he, she, it, its his, her, hers, himself, herself, itself, the woman, the man they, them, their, theirs, themselves, the women, the men

 

Making Subjects and Their Related Verbs Agree

We speakers of English are pretty lucky in this regard when it comes to simple sentences. We have to change the verb for only one “person:” third-person singular.

Let’s look at an example:

The verb “to speak” works well:

  Singular Plural
First Person I speak. We speak.
Second Person You speak You (plural) speak.
Third Person He / She / It speaks. They speak.

As the table indicates, with the exception of third-person singular, the verb form is the same for all other persons.

Common Subject – Verb Agreement Mistakes

Here are some of the more common subject-verb agreement boo-boos I have seen over the years of my teaching practice.

Be sure to study these carefully and check that you aren’t making these same mistakes in your writing.

Subject and Verb Separated by Clauses

Where mistakes are often made with subject-verb agreement is when it’s not clear which subject is associated with a verb. Don’t be confused by a clause that comes between the subject and the verb. The verb agrees with the subject, not with a noun or pronoun in the clause.

Look at this sentence:

Rising taxes (S), not to mention higher unemployment, influence (V) voters.

A common mistake is to associate a noun that is closest to a verb for its agreement. The temptation may be to write “influences.” Be careful of this. Here, we are primarily talking about “taxes,” not “unemployment.” Thus, the word “taxes” is the main subject and the one that the verb “influence” needs to agree with.

We will look at commas in a lot more detail later. For now, just keep in mind that commas are used to separate clauses in a sentence. Some clauses are called nonessential clauses.

This means that the clause (the one between the commas) could be left off and the sentence would still make perfect sense. In the example above, the nonessential clause is “, not to mention higher unemployment,”.

We never want to look at the noun in a nonessential clause to consider verb agreement. Ask yourself, “What is the main person, place, or thing that the sentence is talking about?” In this case, it’s the taxes, not the unemployment.

Here’s another example:

The movie, including all the scenes at the beginning, was filmed in Chicago.

The temptation might be to say, “were filmed” because of the noun “scenes.”

However, what is the main thing we are talking about in this sentence? Look at the clause, that is, the part of the sentence separated by commas.

It reads, “, including all the scenes at the beginning,”. So, we know the subject cannot be “scenes.” It has to be “movie.”

Subject-Verb Agreement with Prepositional Phrases

A prepositional phrase is a set of words in a sentence that begins with a preposition, “on the roof,” for example. We learned about prepositions in Unit 1.

Now the benefit of understanding prepositions: We can know that the verb of a sentence is never contained in a prepositional phrase.

The members of the hockey team were elated when they won the championship game.

The temptation may be to use the verb “was” due to the noun “team” appearing directly before the verb.

However, look back at the sentence again. See the preposition “of” right after the word “members?” Well, there begins the prepositional phrase “of the hockey team.”

So, we know that the noun “team” cannot be our subject. Just visually eliminate the prepositional phrase from the sentence and see the sentence like this:

The members of the hockey team were elated when they won the championship game.

Now, the subject and its corresponding verb are more obvious, making it clear that the verb needs to be “were,” not “was.”

Here is another example:

Incorrect: The grove of orange trees are one of my fondest memories.

Correct: The grove of orange trees is one of my fondest memories.

Eliminating the prepositional phrase – “of orange trees” – helps to show that the subject is “grove,” so the verb “is” is needed here, not “are.”

Don’t versus Doesn’t

Another of the most common sources of confusion in written and spoken English is when to use “don’t” versus “doesn’t.” Which of the following is correct?

He don’t ever think to call ahead to make a reservation.

He doesn’t ever think to call ahead to make a reservation.

Here’s a tip: Both of these words are contractions:

don’t = “do not”

doesn’t = “does not”

When in doubt, just break the contraction into its separate words. Would you say the following?

He do not ever think to call ahead to make a reservation.

No. You would say,

He does not ever think to call ahead to make a reservation.

Therefore, the correct contraction is,

He doesn’t ever think to call ahead to make a reservation.

Third person singular is the only time we use “doesn’t.” With all other persons, we use “don’t.”

I don’t eat.

We don’t eat.

You don’t eat.

You (plural) don’t eat.

He / She / It doesn’t eat.

They don’t eat.

Each / Every / Either / Neither…

The following words are singular:

Therefore, when the subject of a sentence is one of these words, the singular form of the verb must be used.

Each of these vegetables tastes delicious!

Every one of these dresses costs more than I make in a month.

Neither of the children was aware it was a holiday.

The subjects of these sentences are “each,” “every,” and “neither,” not “vegetables,” “dresses,” and “children.”

As we saw above, the subject is never in a prepositional phrase, that is, one that begins with a preposition. Notice the word “of” in each sentence. Well, that “of” begins a prepositional phrase. The words “vegetables,” “dresses,” and “children” are part of that prepositional phrase; thus, they cannot be our subjects.