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Subject/Verb Agreement (Part 1)

A sentence consists of two main parts, a subject and a predicate. The subject is the something or someone that the sentence is about. The complete subject is a noun phrase, consisting of a noun or nouns (also called the simple subject) and all the descriptive material that goes with it. In the following sentence the subject is set off from the predicate with a / and the simple subject is bolded. All the descriptive material about the simple subject word is italicized.

Ex. The red brick house on the corner / stayed on the market for weeks.

Though the whole noun phrase is really the complete subject, we often speak of the simple subject as the subject of the sentence, which is the approach we will take for the rest of this handout.

Now let’s look at the predicate of the example sentence (everything that comes after the /). The predicate is a verb phrase that consists of a verb and all the material that describes or qualifies it. Notice that the complete predicate makes an assertion about the subject.

Ex. The red brick house on the corner / stayed on the market for weeks.

If we take the subject (house) and the verb from the predicate (stayed) and put them together, we have the core of the sentence:

house stayed

These two words (the subject and the verb) have to agree in number: if the subject is singular, the verb must also be singular; if the subject is plural, the verb must be plural.

If they don’t agree, the reader will experience a momentary disjunction in meaning; he or she will have to stop for a moment and figure the sentence out and that is something we usually don’t want our readers to have to do. We want the core of the sentence to be consistent.

Problems in agreement often result when writers aren’t sure what the subject is or, in some cases, whether the subject is singular or plural. If you are not sure what the subject is, ask yourself, “Who or what is doing the action the verb expresses?” or “Who or what is being described by the predicate?”

Example: The schedule of course and classes often bewilders new students.

In this example, the schedule is what does the action of bewildering.

Identifying the simple subject is the key to deciding whether to use a singular or a plural verb. Once you identify the subject, you can substitute a pronoun for it to help you check your subject/ verb agreement. If there is only one subject and it’s singular, substitute it for the subject to see if you’ve chosen the appropriate verb.

Example: The pet raccoon under the trees always washes his food.

It washes

If the subject is plural, substitute they to see if you’ve chosen the appropriate verb.

*Note: Subjects can be plural in two ways: the simple subject itself can be a plural noun (cars, sisters, rooms) or the simple subject can be compound—two or more nouns joined by and (Tom and Jerry; cars, bikes, and boats; the school and home).

Example: The new computers accomplish an extraordinary number of complex tasks.

They accomplish

Example: Jack and Jill always fall down that stupid hill.

They fall