The subject of a sentence should always match the verb describing its action. This helps your reader understand who or what is doing something and makes your writing easier to read.
First, identify the subject (the person or thing doing the action) and the verb (the action word) in a sentence. If the subject is singular, the verb describing its action should be singular. If the subject is plural, the verb should be plural.
|Verb||Singular subject + verb||Plural subject + verb|
|Be||The result is significant.||The results are significant.|
|Do||The student does her best.||The students do their best.|
|Become||The child becomes happier.||The children become happier.|
|Cause||That tree causes hay fever.||Those trees cause hay fever.|
|Analyze||The author analyzes the text.||The authors analyze the text.|
While subject-verb agreement is easy in simple sentences like these, it can become tricky in more complex sentences. This article teaches you the most important rules and common mistakes.
Sometimes two or more subjects are linked to one verb. These are called compound subjects. To decide whether to use a singular or plural verb, consider how the subjects are linked.
Subjects linked with “and”
When subjects are linked with and, use a plural verb.
A bicycle and a pedestrian were involved.
The goose and the chickens eat early in the morning.
Exception: When the two nouns don’t refer to separate things but to a single entity, use a singular verb.
The new bed and breakfast opens this week.
Macaroni and cheese is a delicious meal.
Subjects linked with “or”
When singular subjects are linked with or, either…or, nor, neither…nor, use a singular verb.
Just a card or a balloon is enough.
Either the measurement or the calculation has created a problem.
If all the subjects are plural, use a plural verb.
Either the measurements or the calculations have created a problem.
If the compound subject contains both singular and plural nouns, the verb takes the form of the closest subject.
Neither the batteries nor the machine operates as intended.
Subjects separated from verbs
Often the verb does not directly follow the subject, which can lead to agreement mistakes. Make sure to match the verb with the correct subject, especially in long sentences with phrases or clauses in between subject and verb.
“As well as” and other tricky phrases
The phrase as well as is not the same as the conjunction and. Subjects linked by and always take a plural verb. In contrast, phrases like as well as, in addition to, or along with are not linked to the verb. If the subject is singular, the verb should stay singular.
These refer to non-specific persons, places, and things (e.g. someone, other, anyone, anything, somewhere, every, none).
Most indefinite pronouns are treated as singular subjects. However, some are always treated as plural, as they refer to multiple items or amounts.
Certain indefinite pronouns may be treated as either singular or plural, depending on whether they refer to multiple items or to a proportion of a single item.
|Always singular||Pronouns ending in –thing, –where, –body or –one (e.g. somewhere, anybody), every, one, each, another…||Something falls from the table.|
Each of the participants responds promptly.
Anyone is able to use the software.
|Always plural||Many, few, several, both, others||Both of the twins are lazy.|
Few know what really happened that day.
|May be singular|
|None, all, some, most, more, any, either||All of the cookies are gone.|
All of the cookie is gone.
Subjects that come after the verb
Sometimes the subject follows the verb, especially when the sentence begins with there or here. In this case, there is not the subject – the true subject should be identified and matched with the correct verb form.
There are many gaps in the literature.
Here is the answer.
Note: Identifying the true subject can be difficult when using these phrases in a long sentence, which can be confusing for your readers, so be careful when starting a sentence in this way.
Numbers and amounts
When using numbers, percentages or proportions, the correct form of verb agreement depends on exactly what you’re referring to. It’s helpful to look beyond the numbers and find the true subject.
If you’re referring to a specific number or amount of something, match the verb with the noun rather than the number.
Only 25% of the measurements are reliable.
Three meters of wire surrounds the core.
Over 300 civilians reside in the area.
This also applies when the number refers to an unnamed noun.
I invited 10 people to the party, but only nine are coming.
30% say they will vote in the next election.
If the subject of the sentence is a number referring to a unified quantity of something, use a singular verb.
One thousand dollars is too much.
In fact, 63% is a better result than expected.
Terms that describe a proportion of something are usually followed by “of” (such as most of). First look at the noun you are describing to determine if it’s singular or plural, then match it to the verb.
The majority of the samples are contaminated.
The majority of the sample is contaminated.
One third of the participants were given the placebo.
Collective and uncountable nouns
It can be hard to work out whether to treat collective and uncountable nouns as singular or plural.
A collective noun refers to a group of people or things as a singular whole (e.g. population, team, committee, staff). The form of verb depends on the style of English you are using. US English tends to use a singular verb, while UK English tends to use a plural verb. This also applies to the names of companies and organizations.
However, in both styles of English, this rule is somewhat flexible depending on whether you want to emphasize the actions of the collective as a whole or the individual actions of its members.
|US English||UK English|
|The team usually wins.||The team usually win.|
|The herd migrates in summer.||The herd migrate in summer.|
|The WWF invites its members to a meeting.||The WWF invite their members to a meeting.|
|Walmart is the world’s largest company.||Walmart is the world’s largest company.*|
|The staff argue with each other.**||The staff argue with each other.|
*A singular verb makes more sense here, as the emphasis is on the company as a unified entity.
**A plural verb makes more sense here, as the emphasis is on the individual staff members.
These nouns describe abstract concepts or masses that can’t be counted (e.g. research, power, water and vegetation). They take a singular verb.
This equipment is unusable.
The research goes smoothly.
Water flows through the streets.
Note: Data is technically a plural noun, but it is widely treated as an uncountable noun, so it is acceptable to use either the singular or plural verb form.
This research aims to gather additional data on bee behaviour, which is currently lacking.
Data were collected over a period of three months.
Abbreviations and acronyms
Abbreviations and acronyms usually take a singular verb. If you’re unsure, check if the full version of the acronym or abbreviation is a singular, plural or collective noun, and refer to the rules above. It’s most important to use one form of agreement consistently.
The country’s GDP correlates with its birth rate.
The RPM falls rapidly.
In addition to oil, HNS are a common form of cargo.
In the examples above, RPM (“revolutions per minute”) refers to a stand-alone number, so it takes a singular verb. HNS (“hazardous and noxious substances”), on the other hand, is used to describe multiple things, so it takes a plural verb.