The Right Agreement Between Subject and Verb

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Have you ever gotten confused writing subject verb agreement? I know the whole question makes you yawn. Don’t click away from my blog now. Subject verb agreement is easy to ignore in your initial first draft. Struggling to get the thoughts to flow the mechanics of writing get sloppy. During rewrites some subject verb agreement can slid by as well. Here’s a few reminders and tips to keep your subject and verb from fighting each other.

Let’s define terms for those of us who forget or can’t quote the grammar rules Once again I refer to 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar: Lessons for Authors on the snags of the English language by Joyce K. Ellis. Her little booklet is a great go-to guide.

“Careful writers ensure that their subjects (the doer of the action) and verbs (the action) agree—matching a singular subject with a singular verb and a plural subject with a plural verb.”

Joyce explains it so simply. You’d be amazed how easy it is to misunderstand this rule. Try reading the sentence below out loud. Hearing it can help you see your mistake.

The sopranos sings high.

The sentence subject sopranos (a plural noun) so it sounds right to use sing (a plural verb):

The sopranos sing high.

If compelled to discuss the stratospheric vocal range of one soprano, we would say or write:

The soprano (singular subject) sings (singular verb) high.

has the following examples of subject/ verb agreement writers trip over.

The list of items is/are on the desk.
If you know that list is the subject, then you will choose is for the verb. Note: while a list suggests multiple things (items), it is just one list. Therefore is singular and requires a singular verb. (Just sayin…)

The word of is the culprit in many, perhaps most, subject-verb mistakes. Hasty writers, speakers, readers, and listeners might miss the all-too-common mistake in the following sentence:

A bouquet of yellow roses lend color and fragrance to the room.

Correct: A bouquet of yellow roses lends . . . (bouquet lends, not roses lend). That was a bit tricky. Bouquet is the subject, not roses. The one bouquet, therefore, needs the singular verb lends.

As a general rule, use a plural verb with two or more subjects when they are connected by and.

Example: A car and a bike are my means of transportation.

But note these exceptions:

Breaking and entering is against the law.
The bed and breakfast was charming.

My thoughts: Don’t you just love exceptions? They make my head spin.

In 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar Joyce adds another confusing example.

“None of us need chocolate.

None—standing for not one—is a singular pronoun in the third person (e.g., he or she). So if we substitute one of those, we have this:

She need chocolate.

That doesn’t work. Though tough to admit, we must say this:

None of us needs chocolate.”

The last point I will share in this blog but not all there is to say on subject/verb agreement is the greater the distance between the subject and verb in a sentence, the more likely we will trip up.

In this next case we’ve heard it spoken. The incorrect agreement spills over in our writing because it sounds right.

Joyce’s example:

Erroneous: The band of “musicians” scream their lyrics.

Correct: The band (singular subject) of “musicians” screams (singular verbs)…lyrics.

It may sound right to say “musicians” scream. However, band, not musicians, is the subject of the sentence. The words—of musicians—create a prepositional phrase modifying the subject. “

Joyce’s Bottom Line: Make sure to match singular subjects with singular verbs and plural subjects with plural verbs.

Now go back over that manuscript you examined for weak verbs and check for incorrect subject /verb agreement.

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