What is Subject-Verb Agreement?
Asking this question is a good place to start. Here’s the deal — you need your verb to always agree with its subject in person and number.
Let’s look at a correct example of subject-verb agreement.
First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then the rest of the people speak.
Kind of a clunky sentence, but you get the idea. Notice that the verbs always agree with their subjects. ‘Boss’ and ‘the assistant’ are singular, so the correct verb is ‘speaks.’ On the other hand, ‘the rest of the people’ is plural, not singular, so in that case you would go with the verb ‘speak’ and not ‘speaks.’
Seems simple, right? Unfortunately, indefinite pronouns make this trickier.
What’s an indefinite pronoun? It’s a word that requires a singular or plural verb depending on its meaning and use in the sentence.
Let’s look at another example of subject-verb agreement, this time with an indefinite pronoun.
First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then each of the other employers speak.
Perfectly correct, right?
Wrong. Even though it looks right, and even though it sounds right.
‘Employers’ at the end of the sentence is plural, so naturally the correct verb should be ‘speak,’ right?
Actually, in the case of the above example, the subject at the end of the sentence isn’t ‘employers’ but ‘each,’ which is an indefinite pronoun.
First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then each of the other employers speaks.
This is the correct subject-verb agreement because, again, ‘each’ is the subject, and ‘of the other employees’ is merely additional information.
Now what if you changed the sentence to this…
First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then all of the other employers speak.
The indefinite pronoun has been changed from ‘each’ to ‘all,’ and therefore, because ‘all’ is plural, not singular, you would change that final word to ‘speak.’
If you read your sentence out loud, and you’re still not sure, try removing the additional information and shorten the sentence to see how it sounds.
Each person speaks.
All people speak.
You wouldn’t say ‘each people’ or ‘all person,’ right? Sometimes all you need to do is take a minute to shorten the phrase to double-check.
There’s one more confusing item to look out for in your subject-verb agreements: noncount nouns.
Keep in mind that sometimes even a subject like ‘all’ doesn’t necessarily mean a plural verb.
Look at these two examples…
All of the speeches were efficient.
All of the working was efficient.
That second example offers what is known as a noncount noun, in that the word ‘working’ doesn’t necessarily translate to two or more things, yet you still would use ‘all’ as its subject and not ‘each.’
You wouldn’t say ‘Each of the working was efficient,’ and you wouldn’t say ‘all of the working were efficient.’
Noncount nouns offer strange cases where your subject is plural and your verb is effectively singular. Example of these nouns include sand, sugar, coffee, water, furniture, cash, learning, speaking, intelligence, and beauty, just to name a few.
Remember to read the sentence aloud if you’re not quite sure, and sometimes, you just have to go with your gut when need be.
You’ll get better at subject-verb agreements as long as you practice, practice, practice!
Keep writing often, and you’ll be able to master them each and every time.