Subject verb agreement refers to a kind of conformity between the subject and a verb in a sentence.
There are several underlying principles or rules that guide agreement between a subject and a verb in a sentence, otherwise known as subject-verb agreement.
Basic Rule/Principle of Subject-Verb Agreement (Concord)
Basic Rule: The basic rule of concord or subject-verb agreement states that verbs must agree in number with their subjects.
Verbs that Express or Show Agreement
In English language, it is not all verbs that show agreement, for the purpose of this lesson, we shall classify verbs that express agreement into three;
a. The simple present form of lexical or action verbs. This includes the bare form of the verb, and the third person singular form of the verb.
Usage Examples and Explanations
*Ama go to farm everyday. – incorrect
Ama goes to farm everyday – correct
*The children goes to farm everyday – incorrect
The children go to farm everyday – correct
Ama went to farm yesterday – correct
The children went to farm yesterday – correct
Let us look at the set of examples above. We can see that in set A, we notice that the first example, Ama *go to farm everyday, we notice that that example is incorrect, Why? This is because Ama is singular, and does not agree in number with the verb *go.
In the second example, we have the sentence, Ama goes to farm everyday. Why do we say this sentence is correct? This sentence is correct because Ama, which is singular, agrees in number with the verb, goes.
Let us now shift our attention to the second set of examples. In set B, we have the first example, The children *goes to farm everyday. This sentence is incorrect, it is incorrect because children, which is plural in number, cannot agree with the verb goes. That is why the sentence is incorrect. In the second example, we have this sentence, the children go to farm everyday. This sentence is correct because, children, which is plural, agrees in number with the verb go.
Now we look at the last set of examples, in set C, we have the first sentence which is, Ama went to farm yesterday. This sentence is correct. It is correct because the verb went expresses an action in the past.
Then, we have the second example, in the second example, we have, the children went to farm yesterday. This sentence is equally correct. It is correct because the verb went expresses an action in the past. Both sentences are correct in set C.
OBSERVATION AND CONCLUSION
In the three set of examples, we observed that in set A, the verbs we have in the sentences are GOES and GO, so you see, we said Ama *go to farm everyday is incorrect because Ama is singular and *go is plural, hence, the sentence is incorrect.
Now we said that the second example is correct, Ama goes to farm everyday, this is because Ama, which is singular, agrees with the singular verb GOES.
Now, we realize that in set B, we said that The children goes to farm everyday is incorrect. WHY? The children, which is plural, does not agree with the singular verb GOES, but The children go to farm everyday is correct. It is correct because children, which is plural, agrees with the plural verb GO.
Now, what observation can we make?
The observation is that GO and GOES are the verbs in the examples discussed above. The present form GO is the bare form of the verb GO, and its third person singular form is GOES, it is also a verb in the simple present form, it is the third person singular form of the verb GO, So these two verbs show agreement.
Now let us make our observation in set C and see whether we can make a generalization or a conclusion. In set C, we observed that, the children went to farm yesterday and Ama went to farm yesterday are both correct. Why do we say they are correct? Because the verbs in these expressions are actually in the past and do not show any agreement.
So we then make a generalization that action or lexical verbs in the simple present form show concord or agreement with their subjects, however action verbs or lexical verbs in the past do not show agreement with their subjects whether the subject is singular or it is plural, we use the past form of the verb if only we are expressing an action in the past time.
Hence, lexical or action verbs in the past will not show any form of concord.
b. The present forms of the primary auxiliaries DO and HAVE
Present forms of DO; Does, do.
Amina does not like the man – correct
Amina *do not like the man – incorrect
The girls do not like the man – correct
The girls *does not like the man – incorrect
Amina did not like the man – correct
The girls did not like the man – correct
In the sentences above, we see that the verb DOES agrees in number with only singular subjects, but does not agree in number with plural subjects. That explains why The girls DOES not like the man is wrong.
The verb DO also agrees in number with only plural subjects, but not singular subjects. This equally explains why Amina DO not like the man is wrong.
However, the verb DID agrees in number with both singular and plural subjects, this explains why Amina DID not like the man and The girls DID not like the man are both correct.
Present form of HAVE: has, have
Past form: had
She has done the work – correct
She *have done the work – incorrect
They *has done the work – incorrect
They have done the work – correct
She had done the work – correct
They had done the work – correct
In the examples above, we observe yet again that, HAS cannot agree in number with a plural subject, this explains why They *has done the work is wrong. We also observed that HAVE does not also agree in number with a singular verb, this explains why she *have done the work is also incorrect.
However, we further again noticed that HAD agrees with both singular and plural subjects.
The conclusion that is drawn from this linguistic experiment is that, the primary auxiliaries HAVE and DO show concord or subject-verb agreement in the present form only, but do not show concord in the past form.
c. The primary auxiliary verb BE: This is the only verb in English language that shows concord or subject-verb agreement in both present and past forms.
Present forms: am, is, are
Past forms: was, were
Note: The verb AM expresses concord exclusively with the first person singular personal pronoun, I.
NOTE: Modal auxiliaries do not express concord or subject-verb agreement at all.
Let us now look at the various underlying principles or rules of subject verb agreement.
A singular subject requires a singular verb within the same sentence.
The boy writes letters for people.
She is beautiful
The man was slaughtered.
EXCEPTION: The first person singular pronoun in the subjective case, I, presents a few exceptions to this. Let us look at them below:
i. The first person singular pronoun, I, even though singular in number, agrees with plural lexical verbs in the simple present form. E.g I write letters for people, instead of, I *writes letters for people.
ii. The pronoun equally agrees with the plural forms of the auxiliary verbs, HAVE and DO. E.g I have done the work, instead of, I *has done the work. I do not like him, instead of, I *does not like him.
c. However, as expected, it agrees with the singular past form of the primary auxiliary BE. E.g I was late.
A plural subject agrees in number with a plural verb.
The men are fighting.
The boys have done the work.
They were sacked.
The women dance everyday.
Subject-Verb Agreement of Compound or Coordinated Subjects
Compound subject is a subject that has more than one noun or pronoun joined by a conjunction that serves as the subject of a verb in a sentence.
If two singular subjects are joined by ‘and’, the verb must be plural.
This guideline has an exception, we will look at it in the next guideline.
Salifu and Sherifa are couples.
He and She were awarded.
The boy and the girl walk to school everyday.
If two singular subjects are joined using ‘and’, but refers to one thing, the verb must be singular.
Rice and beans was my favorite in school.
Butter and bread is nice with tea.
If two singular subjects are joined by ‘or’, the verb must be singular.
REASON: OR suggests only one of items is applicable, and not both.
The man or the woman was right
Ama or Aisha is the right person for the job.
If two singular nouns are joined using ‘and’ such that the former is premodified or introduced by a determiner, while the latter is not, a singular verb must be used.
REASON: The same person is occupying two roles, so we are referring to the same person occupying more than one position or role.
My father and teacher was sick yesterday.
Note: my father is the same person as my teacher. It means my father is my teacher.
The secretary and typist is very humble.
Uncountable nouns (Mass nouns) are singular in nature, hence, they require singular verbs.
The sugar was bought with her money.
Water is necessary for human survival.
The minutes was read by the secretary.
Information was given at the meeting.
NOTE: If an uncountable noun is quantified using expressions that express number, they may take singular or plural verbs. In such contexts, the quantifying expression becomes the subject and the uncountable noun only forms part of a prepositional phrase which post modifies the subject.
A bit of information was given at assembly.
Bits of information were given at assembly.
NOTE: In the two examples above, the headwords of the noun phrases that serve as subjects in both sentences are; BIT and BITS. That is why their corresponding verbs are WAS and WERE respectively.
Subject-Verb Agreement Phrases between the Subject and the Verb
The number of a subject is not changed by a phrase which comes between it (the subject) and the verb in a sentence.
a. If the subject is singular, a singular verb must be used.
A friend of the armed robbers was arrested.
The man who has seventy wives is sick.
The lady in trousers has a lot of money.
b. If the subject is plural, a plural verb must be used.
The children of the most influential man are very humble.
The wives of the most powerful pastor were not in church yesterday.
If a subject is followed by the following expressions; along with, together with, as well as, with the exception, including, particularly, most especially, most importantly etc. The verb must agree with the subject and not the expression that is introduced by the above expressions.
NOTE: These expressions are called intrusive elements, they only introduce additional information to the subject for the purposes of exemplification, contrast, explanation etc.
a. If the subject before the above expressions is singular, a singular verb must be used.
The contractor, including all other workers was sacked.
The chief together with the elders is afraid to tell the truth.
The boy as well as his parents is to sign the bond.
b. If the subject before the above expressions is plural, a plural verb must be used.
Flowers, particularly the rose flower are used to express love.
The students, especially John were not serious.
Nouns ending in -s that denote diseases generally take singular verbs. E.g measles, syphilis, candidiasis, rickets, yaws, mumps etc.
Measles is an infectious disease.
Syphilis was treated locally in the past.
Nouns ending in -s that denote games are singular, hence, take singular verbs. E.g billiards, chess, draughts, darts, dominoes.
Draughts is played by two people.
Dominoes was interesting in the past.
Titles of Books and Cities
Titles of books, newspapers, magazines which end in -s, like other titles and names of cities, countries ending in -s are considered singular, and therefore take singular verbs. E.g Great Expectations, Ghanaian Times, the Canterbury Tales, Athens, Algiers.
Algiers is the capital of Algeria.
Great Expectations has been my favorite novel since childhood.
The Sciences and School Subjects
Nouns ending in -ics that denote the sciences and other school subjects usually take singular verbs when they are used to refer to a discipline. In such cases, they begin in upper case letters. E.g Linguistics, classics, electronics, statistics, economics, physics, phonetics, athletics politics etc.
Politics is an interesting subject.
Statistics is taught in every university.
NOTE: Some of these nouns, that end in -ics are considered plural when used to refer to activities, qualities or individual facts, and therefore, takes plural verbs.
The statistics are inaccurate.
Samson’s politics were different from the rest during the election.
Nouns Ending in -s that Take Singular or Plural Verbs
There are some nouns that do not change in form whether they are used in the singular or in the plural sense. E.g barracks, species, means, crossroads, whereabouts etc.
The whereabouts of the armed robber is/are unknown.
The headquarters of the firm is/are in Accra.
NOTE: Sometimes, the choice of a singular or a plural verb depends on the context.
There is a crossroads a few meters ahead.
There are many crossroads in the town.
Notional concord is a type of concord between the subject and the verb which exists not because the subject has a form which indicates whether it is singular or plural but the agreement is based on perception or notion. E.g Portuguese, French, staff, army, jury etc.
The Portuguese has/have arrived.
Portuguese could mean one or more than one, until the context dictates explicitly as to whether one person is being referred to or more than one, it will not be wrong to use a singular or a plural verb.
NOTE: Collective nouns exhibit notional concord in English.
Collective nouns take singular verbs when they are used to denote a single unit or collection.
The staff has donated a computer to the best student.
In the example above, staff is considered as a unit, that’s why the singular verb HAS is used.
My family stays in Tamale.
The jury is ready with the verdict.
When a collective noun is used to denote the individuals in the collection or group, a plural verb must be used. That is, when the members of the collection or group are functioning individually, a plural verb must be used.
The staff are marking the exam papers.
In the example above, the members in the collection i.e. staff are seen to be functioning individually, hence, a plural verb.
The jury were divided when it came to the verdict.
In this example too, the members of the jury are seen to be having their individual opinions, hence, a plural verb.
Proximity Concord and Associated Subject-Verb Agreement Rules
Proximity concord is the type of concord that exists between the subject and the verb based on closeness or nearness.
NOTE: This type of concord is only applicable when two subjects of different numbers are involved, that is, when a singular and a plural subjects are involved.
When a singular and a plural subject are joined using ‘OR’, the verb must agree with the closer subject.
a. I. The teacher or the students were responsible for the electrical fault.
II. The students or the teacher was responsible for the electrical fault.
NOTE: This rule is applicable when a singular and a plural subject are joined using the following correlatives; either……or, neither……..nor, not only…….but(also), not just……but.
Either the man or the children have stolen the money.
Either the children or the man has stolen the money.
Neither the man nor the women are humble
Neither the women nor the man is humble
Concord of Indefinite Pronouns and Associated Subject-Verb Agreement Guidelines.
Indefinite pronouns are pronouns that do not stand for any specified noun. They refer to people or things in general.
For the purpose of easy understanding, we shall group indefinite pronouns into four;
A. Indefinite Pronouns that Take Only Singular Verbs
The following indefinite pronouns are singular in form, hence require singular verbs.
One (of) someone, somebody, something
each (of) everyone everybody, everything
either (of) anyone, anybody, anything
neither (of) no-one, nobody, nothing
Someone was asked to do this work.
Everybody is required to pay the fees in full.
B. Indefinite Pronouns that Take Either Singular or Plural Verbs
The above indefinite pronouns may take either singular or plural verbs when used with plural countable nouns; they take singular verbs in formal usage and take plural verbs in informal usage.
None of the students was in class. – formal
None of the students were in class. – informal
Is any of the classes open? – formal
Are any of the classes open? – informal
NOTE: Exam is formal, hence anytime either of these is used, a singular verb is required.
C. Indefinite Pronouns that Take Singular or Plural Verbs
MOST, SOME, ALL
The above indefinite pronouns could either take singular or plural verbs.
a. They take singular verbs when they are used with uncountable nouns.
Some of the sugar was used to prepare breakfast.
Most of the water is polluted.
All the oil has expired.
b. They take plural verbs when they are used with countable (plural) nouns.
a. Some of the boys are yet to come.
b. Most of the students were sacked on academic grounds.
c. All the girls are humble.
D. Indefinite Pronouns that Take Only Plural Verbs
FEW, A FEW, SEVERAL, MANY, OTHERS, BOTH
The above indefinite pronouns are plural, hence take only plural verbs.
Many are called, but few are chosen.
Others were asked to reapply the following year since it was impossible to admit all.
The Expression ‘Many a’
The expression ‘many a’ which has a plural meaning (a lot of) agrees in number with a singular verb.
Many a student has suffered the pain of exam anxiety.
It means, a lot of/many students have suffered the pain of exam anxiety.
Many a woman has suffered the pain of childbirth.
Nouns that Occur in the Plural Only and Associated Guidelines
There are a few nouns in English that occur in the plural only, we shall look at the subject verb agreement of such nouns when they are used as subjects.
For the purpose of easy understanding, we shall group them into three;
A. Objects Consisting of Two Parts Always Joined
Nouns ending in -s that denote objects that have two parts always joined take plural verbs. E.g jeans, trousers, binoculars, scissors, dungarees, panties, tights, spectacles etc.
Scissors are used to cut hair.
Jeans are fashionable among ladies these days.
Binoculars are used to observe objects from far distance.
NOTE: Because these nouns have two parts always joined, if we want to refer to one, we say, ‘a pair of’ plus the noun, in such case, a singular verb is required.
A pair of scissors is needed to cut the hair.
B. Plural Nouns Without -s
There are a few nouns without -s that occur in the plural, hence require plural verbs. E.g cattle, police, personnel, clergy, townsfolk/townspeople.
The clergy were here to solve the dispute.
The police are our friends.
C. Nouns With Plural Unchanged
There are some nouns that have the same form in the singular and plural states, hence may take sing or plural verbs. E.g sheep, deer, offspring, salmon etc.
The sheep is/are here.
The salmon was/were expensive.
NOTE: If reference is made with regards to number, the number will dictate the choice of the verb.
One sheep was slaughtered
Two sheep were slaughtered.
Arithmetical Sums/Other Sums and Associated Subject-Verb Agreement Guidelines
A. Plural Nouns Indicating Sum or Unit
When a plural noun is used to indicate a sum or a unit, a singular verb is required.
NOTE: Such plural nouns usually express length of time, money, distance, weight etc.
Fourteen years is a long period to wait.
Ten million cedis is what we need.
Two hundred kilometers is a long distance to walk.
Fifty kilograms of maize was stolen.
B. Fractions and Percentages
Subjects that express a fraction or percentage of something take either singular or plural verbs.
a. If the noun that follows the fraction or percentage is uncountable (singular), a singular verb is required.
Half of the speech was boring
Ten percent of the sugar was used to prepare the tea.
Two-thirds of the water was polluted.
b. If the noun that follows the percentage or fraction is a countable noun (plural), a plural verb is used.
Half of the students were absent.
Two-thirds of the books have gone missing.
C. ‘The Number of’ and ‘a number of’
‘The number of’ is considered as a unit, hence, takes a singular verb, whereas ‘a number of’ considers the individuals, hence takes a plural verb.
The number of boys selected was ten.
A number of boys were selected.
The number of teachers available is enough to do the work.
A number of teachers are available to do the work.
Subject-Verb Agreement in Relative Clauses
In instances where the subject is a relative pronoun, e.g which, who, that, the verb must agree in number with the relative pronoun.
NOTE: The antecedent of the relative pronoun basically refers to the noun or pronoun which comes before the relative pronoun.
a. If the antecedent of the relative pronoun is singular, the verb must equally be singular.
The worker who was sacked has reported.
The boy who does the gardening has traveled.
The lady that cooks our lunch is no more.
The dog which is here is friendly to visitors.
b. If the antecedent of the relative pronoun is plural, a plural verb must be used.
One of the workers who were sacked has reported.
Some of the boys who do the gardening have traveled.
One of the ladies that cook our lunch is no more.
One of the dogs which are here is friendly to visitors.
Subject-Verb Agreement in Anticipatory Subjects
Anticipatory subjects are subjects that occur after verbs in sentences.
There are two instances in English that the subject can occur after the verb;
A. Interrogative sentence; In interrogative sentences, the subject always come after the verb, so the choice of the verb in such sentences must reflect the subject which comes after the verb.
What is John doing there?
What are John and Sandra doing there?
Who is he?
Who are he and she? This is not strange. It means, who are they?
Does Alhassan like mangoes?
Do Alhassan and Samira like mangoes?
b. When the sentence begins in the following words; there, here, below, under, behind etc.
Here is my father.
Here are my parents.
Under the table is my bag.
Under the table are my bag and my books.
The expression ‘All (plural noun) but (someone)
The expression ‘all (plural noun) but (someone or something) is plural in meaning, hence, requires a plural verb.
All the students but John were present.
It means all the students were present except John.
All the mangoes but one are ripe.
It means all the mangoes are ripe, except one.
Thank you for reading!
The document below contains a PDF note on subject verb agreement.