Subject-Verb Agreement

One of the most common grammar errors student writers make is failing to make their subjects and verbs agree. The subject is the person, place or thing or idea doing the action; the verb is the action. Since subjects and verbs are the meat and potatoes of sentences, understanding and improving the connection between the two can dramatically clarify writing.

Fix subject-verb agreement by identifying the correct subject and verb of your sentence and checking to see if they fall under the general rule below or are an exception.

The General Rule

In the present tense, verbs should agree with their subjects in:

-Number: singular or plural

-Person: First (I, We); Second (You); Third (He, She, It)

Third person singular (He, She, It) takes the ending –s

Ex. I Love, We Love, You Love, He Loves

Common Tripping Points

Irregular Verbs: Irregular verbs include go, come, do, give and know. The verb be is also irregular:


  Singular Plural
First Person: I am/was We are/were
Second Person: You are/were You are/were
Third Person: He, She, It is/was They are/were

Compound Subjects:
Maggie and Molly is my favorite friend. (Incorrect) The subject of this sentence is “Maggie and Molly,” a plural subject comprised of two singular subjects. Two or more singular subjects joined by “and” make a compound subject and take a plural verb. This sentence requires the plural form “are” (and “friend” would need to be made plural). Note: If the two parts of your compound subject are referring to the same person or thing (e.g. Maggie’s friend and teacher gives great advice), the subject is singular and should take the –s ending. Here, Maggie’s friend and teacher is the same person and takes the verb gives.

Collective Nouns:
Congress pass a new law this week banning socks that don’t match. (Incorrect) When collective nouns, such as Congress (and family, group, audience, class, herd, and so forth) describe collections of individuals operating as a unified whole, they take the –s or third person singular form. Therefore, the sentence above should begin “Congress passes.”

Or, Nor, or Neither:
The cat or the chihuahua are under the bed. (Incorrect)
In sentences where the subject is composed of two or more nouns connected with “or,” “nor,” or “neither,” the verb must take the tense of the noun closest to it. Here the correct verb is “is.” It must be remembered, however, that if one of the subjects joined by “or” is plural, the verb should be plural too (e.g. the above sentence would be correct if “cat” were “cats”). 

Indefinite Pronouns:
Each of my toes look pretty today. (Incorrect)
One especially difficult kind of subject-verb agreement problem is tied to the use of indefinite pronouns such as “one of,” “each of” and “everybody,” or “none” and “neither.” These pronouns refer to people, places and things in general, such as “every one of my friends” or “one of the coyotes.” When these phrases are used, they usually require singular verbs. Indefinite pronouns include any, anyone, everything, either, someone, something. Note: Some pronouns (such as both, few, many and several) remain singular and take the –s ending.

Ensuring that Your Subjects and Verbs Agree

Find your subject and verb:
To identify the subject and verb, try removing all the other words from your sentence and isolating the subject(s) and verb(s).

Molly and Maggie, while sitting sulkily in the shadows of their sorrow, sob through their sadness. => Molly and Maggie sob. (Correct!)

Tip: Phrases that fall between the subject and verb do not affect their agreement.

Practice Exercise

Read the following passage, making note of whether subject-verb agreement fails to follow the general rule, or if it fails to follow a specific exception.

The best part about going to Coney Island is cotton candy and riding the rides. Some of the rides, like the Wonder Wheel, is terrifying, though. The Wonder Wheel, along with other rides like the Cyclone, have been standing for over eighty years. My family have always told me that there is a reason why my great-grandfather doesn't give piggy-back rides. I wish that everyone running the Wonder Wheel learn to apply this logic someday.

Revision Checklist

o Find the subject(s) and verb(s) of your sentence. Do they agree in number and person?

o Do they follow the General Rule? If not:

Does your sentence contain a compound subject?

The verb does not take the –s ending, unless the compound subject is singular

Does is it contain or, nor, or neither? The verb will take the ending of the noun closest to it

Does it contain an indefinite pronoun or a collective noun? The verb will usually take the –s ending

Where in The Bedford Handbook? Section 21: Make subjects and verbs agree.