Easy and Simple Guide on Subject-Verb Agreement for English Language Learners (ELL)

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Dec 22, 2021

Understanding subject-verb agreement is essential for English language learners to develop good grammar. This topic will allow them to construct proper sentences and effectively express their ideas. The subject-verb agreement will require English language learners to identify the relationships between subjects and verbs in a sentence. Individuals will need to familiarize themselves with the many rules to avoid grammatically incorrect sentences. This guide aims to provide English language learners with simple instructions to better understand subject-verb agreement.

Subject-Verb Agreement Definition

The subject-verb agreement is a concept regarding the relationship between a subject or subjects and a verb within a sentence. The concept consists of many rules referring to specific words, phrases, and situations. Failing to comply with the rules will result in a grammatically incorrect sentence. This can easily happen to English language learners as they may not have the proper fluency and knowledge to identify subject-verb agreement mistakes. Additionally, it is important to note that different sources modify the number of rules. This guide will refer to the rule format of Walden University along with other sources and will aim to expand through brief discussions.

Rule 1: A singular subject requires a singular verb.

The first rule states that a singular subject in a sentence will require a singular verb. In a sentence, the subject will mostly come first before the verb. English language learners can easily identify a subject as they are nouns at the beginning of a sentence. If the subject is a singular noun or pronoun, then the verb that follows them should be in the singular form. Below are two example sentences that show the right and wrong ways to use the first rule of subject-verb agreement.

Correct usage: “John plays the guitar.”

Incorrect usage:  “John play the guitar.”

In the correct example sentence, the singular noun “John” is the subject while the singular verb is the word “plays”. This example complies with the rule that a singular subject must have a singular verb. In the incorrect sentence example, the plural verb “play” follows the singular subject “John” which violates the first rule.

Rule 2: A plural subject requires a plural verb

The second rule is similar to the first rule except it refers to plural forms of subjects and verbs. It simply states that in a sentence, if a subject is in the plural form, then the verb must also be plural. However, certain plural words like “They” may sometimes refer to singular nouns. In these situations, a student must still use a plural verb regardless of the quantity that the noun implies. Below are correct and wrong examples for the second rule.

Correct usage: “Scientists study the cause and effects of addiction.”

“A kid ran for the ice cream truck. They are buying treats.”

Incorrect usage: “Scientists studies the cause and effects of addiction.”

“A kid ran for the ice cream truck. They is buying treats.”

In the correct sentence examples, the plural verbs ”study” and “are” follow the plural subjects “scientists” and “they”. Regarding the sentence containing “they”, the word “kid” implies that the pronoun “they” refers to a singular noun, however, the subject-verb agreement dictates that the word “they” requires a plural verb. In the incorrect sentence examples, the singular words “studies” and “is” accompany the plural subjects which is grammatically wrong.

Additionally, sentences that begin with phrases like “there is” or “there are” tend to have the verb come first before the subject. In these situations, Rule 1 and 2 should still apply. The verb must still agree with the subject’s grammatical count.

Example: “There are many hate crimes in the US .”

In the above example, the verb “are” comes before the subject “hate crimes” but still agrees with its grammatical count, which is plural.

Rule 3: Two or more subjects including the word “and” require a plural verb.

The third rule refers to sentences that have two or more subjects and use the word “and”. In these sentences, a student will need to use a plural verb to describe the action. These types of sentences are common and English language learners must remember this rule to avoid common grammatical mistakes. Below are correct and incorrect examples for the third rule.

Correct usage: “John and Peter are alumni from the University.”

“Students, teachers, and visitors sing during the event.”

Incorrect usage: “John and Peter is alumni from the University.”

“Students, teachers, and visitors sings during the event.”

In the correct sentence examples, the phrases “John and Peter” and “Students, teachers, and visitors” indicate that the sentence has two or more subjects. This requires the use of the plural verbs “are and “sing”. The incorrect sentence examples show that using the singular verbs “is” and “sings” is wrong.

Rule 4: All verbs in a sentence must agree with the subject.

The fourth rule refers to sentences that have multiple verbs. These types of sentences may have one or more subjects. The rule dictates that regardless of the number of verbs, they must agree with the grammatical count of the subject. If a subject is singular, then all verbs must be singular; and if a subject is plural, then all verbs must be in plural form. Below are correct and incorrect examples for the fourth rule.

Correct sentence example: “Frank speaks about equal rights and argues against modern racism.”

“Scientists work countless hours and develop cures for diseases.”

Incorrect sentence example: “Frank speak about equal rights and argue against modern racism.”

“Scientists works countless hours and develops cures for diseases.”

The correct sentence examples show that the verbs “speaks”, “argues”, “work”, and “develop” agree with the singular subject “Frank” and plural subject “scientists”. In the incorrect sentence example, the same verbs do not agree with the same subjects which creates a grammatically incorrect sentence.

Rule 5: A verb must agree with the subject regardless if a phrase is present between them.

The fifth rule states that in a sentence that includes a phrase in between the subject and verb, the verb must still agree with the subject. The phrase in between the subject and verb may contain additional nouns pronouns, however, they should not affect the form of the verb. Below are correct and incorrect examples for the fifth rule.

Correct sentence examples: “Tyrion, with all the riches in the world, wishes to be accepted.”

“The trees, despite the impact of the storm, are still standing straight.”

Incorrect sentence examples: “Tyrion, with all the riches in the world, wish to be accepted.”

“The trees, despite the impact of the storm, is still standing straight.”

In the correct sentence examples, the singular verb “wishes” and plural verb“are” agree with the singular subject “Tyrion” and plural subject “trees”. This is despite the presence of the plural word “riches” in the first example and the singular word “storm.” in the following examples. The incorrect sentence examples show that it is wrong to let the verb follow the grammatical count of the nouns in the phrases.

Rule 6: Verbs must agree with multiple subjects that use the words “or” or “nor”.

The sixth rule states that in a sentence that connects multiple subjects with the word “or” or “nor’, the verb must agree to the form of the subjects. If the subjects are singular, then the verb must be singular; and if the subjects are plural, then the verb must also be plural.

Correct sentence examples: “John or Peter sings during the night.”

“Dogs nor cats sleep in that bed.”

Incorrect sentence examples: “John or Peter sing during the night.”

“Dogs nor cats sleeps in that bed.”

In the correct sentence examples, the singular verb “sings” agrees with the singular subjects in the phrase “John or Peter” and the plural verb “sleep” agrees with the plural subjects in the phrase “Dogs nor cats”. The incorrect sentence examples show sentence structures where the verbs do not agree with the subject’s grammatical count.

Rule 7: A verb must agree with the closest subject if the words “or” or “nor” connect singular and plural subjects.

The seventh rule states that in a sentence where the words “or” or “nor” connect singular and plural subjects, the verb must agree with the subject closest to it. According to Walden University (n.d), this is the rule of proximity. If the closest subject is singular, then the verb must be in the singular form. If the subject is in plural form, then the verb must be plural. 

Correct sentence examples: “Peter nor the students live in the area”

“Teachers or the principal walks in the corridor.”

Incorrect sentence examples: “Peter nor the students lives in the area”

“Teachers or the principal walk in the corridor.”

The correct sentence examples show that the plural verb “live” and the singular verb “walks” agree with the closest subjects which are the plural subject “students” and singular subject “principal”. The incorrect sentence examples illustrate grammatically incorrect sentences where the verbs do not comply with the rule of proximity.

Rule 8: Singular pronouns require singular verbs.

The eighth rule refers to a set of pronouns that tends to refer to a single subject. The pronouns are “Each”, “Each one”, “Either”, “Neither”, “Everyone”, “Everybody”, “Anyone”, “Anybody”, “Nobody”, “Somebody”, “Someone”, and “No one”. The rule states that if these pronouns act as subjects, the verbs that follow them should be in the singular form.

Correct sentence examples: “Anyone who looks at the monument becomes happy.”

“Each one finds the thing they are searching for.”

Incorrect sentence examples: “Anyone who look at the monument becomes happy.”

“Each one find the thing they are searching for.”

The correct sentence examples show the agreement between the singular verbs “looks” and “finds” and the pronouns “anyone” and “each one”. In the incorrect examples, the verbs take a singular form which is grammatically incorrect since the pronouns require singular verbs.

Rule 9: Noncount or uncountable nouns require singular verbs.

The ninth rule refers to the relationship between noncount nouns and their accompanying verbs. According to the rule, all noncount nouns require singular verbs. Noncount nouns are unquantifiable objects or concepts. They include abstract concepts, mass, diseases, subjects of study, languages activity, substance food, and games (Introduction to Count and Noncount Nouns, n.d.). English language learners should be aware of these types of nouns to ensure that they are using the correct verbs in their sentences.

Correct sentence examples: Irreligion is becoming more common in the west.”

“Emotional intelligence affects an individual’s productivity.”

Incorrect sentence examples: “Irreligion are becoming more common in the west.”

“Emotional intelligence affect an individual’s productivity.”

In the correct sentence examples, the noncount nouns are the abstract concepts “irreligion” and “emotional intelligence”. The singular verbs “is” and “affects” accompany these noncount nouns. In the incorrect examples, the plural verbs follow the noncount nouns which form an incorrect sentence structure.

Rule 10: Plural countable nouns require plural verbs

The tenth rule states that plural countable nouns requires the verb following it to be in plural form. Countable nouns are quantifiable nouns that tend to have both singular and plural forms. However, there are also countable nouns that only have plural forms, such as goods, odds, surroundings, and contents. The tenth rule mostly applies to these types of countable nouns.

Correct sentence example: “The surroundings have a gloomy ambiance.”

“The odds of their success transcend our calculations.”

Incorrect sentence example: “The surroundings has a gloomy ambiance.”

“The odds of their success transcends our calculations.”

In the correct sentence example, the plural verbs “have” and “transcend” agree with the plural countable nouns “surroundings” and “odds”. The incorrect sentence examples show the incorrect way to write the same sentence. In the example, the verbs do not agree with the countable nouns.

Rule 11: Collective nouns require singular verb.

The eleventh rule states that collective nouns tend to be singular and should require a singular verb. Collective nouns are words that refer to a group as a single entity which makes them singular. Some examples of collective nouns are “gang”, “choir”, “pair”, and “army”. Other collective nouns include groups of animals, things, and people. English language learners should learn about collective nouns to avoid confusing them with other nouns.

Correct sentence examples: “A pair of snickers hangs on the door frame.”

“The choir is performing tonight.”

Incorrect sentence examples: Correct sentence example: “A pair of snickers hang on the door frame.”

“The choir are performing tonight.”

In the correct sentence examples, the singular verbs “hangs” and “is” agree with the collective nouns “pair of snickers” and “choir”. In the incorrect examples, the plural verbs do not agree with the collective nouns since the nouns are singular.

Rule 12: The phrase “one of _ who” requires a plural verb.

The twelfth rule refers to sentences that include the phrase “one of _ who”. In these sentences, the writer associates the subject with a group which makes it plural. English language learners should take note of this rule since it is very specific and situational. These sentences can also be confusing since they tend to include two nouns.

Correct sentence example: “Frank is one of the performers that sing weekly.”

Incorrect sentence example: “Frank is one of the performers that sings weekly.”

In the correct sentence example, the plural verb “sing” agrees with the plural phrase “one of the performers”. In the incorrect example, the singular verb “sings” does not agree with the phrase but instead with the singular noun “Frank”. This can be a common mistake for English language learners that are not yet familiar with the rules of subject-verb agreement.

Conclusion

English language learners must become familiar with the many rules of subject-verb agreement to ensure that they have proper grammar in their writing and speaking practices. While this guide discussed 12 rules regarding the subject-verb agreement, students can easily remember that subjects and verbs must always share the same grammatical count. They can take this as the golden rule for subject-verb agreement. Additionally, concepts like the “rule of proximity” can help students remember specific situational rules. Subject-verb agreement is essential in developing English fluency in both written and oral mediums.

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Reference List

Academicguides.waldenu.edu. (n.d.). Introduction to Count and Noncount Nouncs [Online]. Walden University. Available at https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/formandstyle/writing/grammarmechanics/nouns#s-lg-box-18085220. Accessed December 21, 2021.

Academicguides.waldenu.edu. (n.d.). Subject-Verb Agreement Rules [Online]. Walden University. Available at https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/grammar/subjectverbagreement. Accessed December 21, 2021.

MasterClass Staff (2021). Subject-Verb Agreement: 11 Rules for Subject-Verb Agreement [Online]. Available at https://www.masterclass.com/articles/subject-verb-agreement#what-is-subjectverb-agreement. Accessed December 21, 2021.

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