Subjects and verbs must agree in number for sentences to work as they’re supposed to. If you don’t recall the first part of the handout on subject/verb agreement or you haven’t read it yet, go back and read it before you continue. What follows now are some tips for avoiding some of the subject/verb pitfalls that can trap the unwary writer.
Avoid looking at words that come between the subject and the verb. These intervening words can cause you to make agreement with the wrong noun. Remember, to identify the real subject of the sentence ask yourself who or what does the action—in the following example who or what plays?
Example: Communication among family members (play, plays) a key role.
Communication [among family members] plays a key role.
Don’t let a dummy subject fool you. Identify the real subject of the sentence.
Sentences that begin with there and it often delay showing the real subject until the end of the sentence. There and it are merely placeholders—they temporarily take the place of the real subject.
Example: There (were, was) only fifteen children in the classroom.
Fifteen children were in the classroom.
Even if the subject is located at the end of the sentence, it must agree with the verb. To determine the appropriate verb, put the subject at the beginning of the sentence.
Solve the or, nor dilemma. Subjects joined by or or nor take a singular verb unless the noun closest to the verb is plural.
Example: Either the ribbon or the bow (need, needs) to be replaced.
Either the ribbon or the bow needs to be replaced.
Example: Either the ribbon or the bows (need, needs) to be replaced.
Either the ribbon or the bows need to be replaced.
Decide whether collective nouns are singular or plural.
Collective nouns like jury, gang, committee, class, and congregation are singular when the group is referred to as a unit; collective nouns are plural when the individuals act separately or when the individuals of the group are referred to separately.
Example: The faculty (is, are) hired in August for the next semester.
The faculty is hired in August.
In the previous example the faculty as a unit is hired in August.
Example: The faculty (presents, present) papers at different conferences.
The faculty present papers at different conferences.
In this example the faculty (acting as individuals) present papers.
Know that everyone is singular. Pronouns like each, everyone, everybody, and anyone mean every single one and take singular verbs.
Ex: Everyone (works, work) hard on this project.
Everyone works hard on this project.
Look at the context. Pronouns like none, enough, more, most, some, all, or half can make agreement with either singular verbs or plural verbs, depending on the overall meaning of the sentence.
Ex: Enough of the stew (was, were) spilled to make a stain.
Enough of the stew was spilled to make a stain.
Ex: Enough of the people (was, were) present to vote.
Enough of the people were present to vote.
Beware of false plurals. Some nouns (including most of the nouns that end in ics—like statistics, mathematics, economics—and words like measles, news, etc.) may end in "s" and look plural, but they are actually singular. Check the dictionary if you are uncertain of a word's number.
Ex: The news (is, are) really bad.
The news is really bad.
Decide whom who refers to. The relative pronouns who, which, and that refer to another noun or pronoun in the sentence. The verb agrees with this other noun or pronoun.
Example: It is good service that (makes, make) a restaurant great.
It is good service that makes a restaurant great.