I have identified eight major rules of subject-verb agreement. This is quite a bit to remember for one quiz, especially when one considers there are several supporting points to these rules. Therefore, I break the list of rules in half when it’s time to do objective grammar testing. I cover the first four subject-verb agreement rules on the second objective exam and the last four rules on the third objective exam. By the way, there are four objective exams in the semester for my Developmental English/Writing course. But this information would be great to cover in College Composition as well. Moreover, the Developmental English instructor may choose to cover only the most common rules of Subject-Verb Agreement. The comprehensive final contains some subject-verb agreement questions too.
1. The Present Tense of Regular Verbs
Subject-verb agreement is an issue only for the present tense and “was” versus “were.” One problem concerns the third-person singular present tense verbs and plural noun subjects; they both end in “-s”. Remember one and only one of the two ends
in “-s” when used together. No other verb requires an “-s” at the end. The second person takes a plural verb—something that reveals itself in “to be,” present and past.
EXAMPLES: The cat meows. The cats meow. You are beautiful
Verbs never require an apostrophe, and neither do plural nouns that don’t show possession. Unnecessary apostrophes are my “pet peeve” when it comes to grammar mistakes.
It seems that the lack of change in English verb endings fools us. We have a lot of helping verbs like will (future) and would (conditional) that seemingly make English grammar easy concerning verbs. However, the first helping verb in a verb phrase must agree with the subject, such as “He has helped his friend with English.” All regular past tense verbs end in “-ed”. An English verb can’t be irregular on the basis of the present tense but due to the past and past participle verb forms.
2. Words between the Subject and Verb
Sometimes the subject and verb aren’t next to each other. Usually the type of phrase, which comes between the subject and verb, is a prepositional phrase.Remember that a prepositional phrase can never have the subject; the noun or pronoun in the prepositional phrase is the object of the preposition. You may wish to review the lists of words commonly used as prepositions, especially the two-letters ones. I have underlined the prepositional phrases in this section of examples. You could actually use proper subject-verb agreement by accident when the sentence subject and the noun in the interrupting phrase share the same number.
EXAMPLES: The house with the red tiles shows Mexican architectural influence.
The leaders of the basketball team were the point guard and center.
This structure usually occurs in questions starting with the “w” words (what, where, who, when, and why) and “how” as well as statements starting with “here” or “there”. Note that the third example shows that the subject can come between the auxiliary verb and the main verb. This situation is different from the typical subject-verb-object (S-V-O) structure of English sentences. Sometimes we begin sentences with a prepositional phrase for variety. More often than not, the subject still comes before the verb. I have italicized the subjects in this section of examples.
EXAMPLES : Where is my wallet?
There are many tall students in this room.
Why don’t you have your essay yet?
In the gym are three new fiberglass backboards. (prepositional phrase, verb before subject. Note that there is no comma between the prepositional phrase and the verb).
Besides the gym, the Glass Recreation Center has meeting room, an indoor track, tennis courts and even a fishing pond. (prepositional phrase, subject before verb. Here we have the prepositional phrase followed by a comma).
4. Compound Subjects
By definition, compound sentences have a subject and verb in each independent clause. The subjects and verbs could be singular or plural. Compound subjects take plural verbs because they’re joined with “and”; moreover, they are in the same clause. Again, I have italicized the subjects in these sentences.
EXAMPLES: Anthony and Aaron play basketball for the school.
Randy and I teach English.
However, when the two words refer to the same thing, the verb stays singular since we don’t have a compound subject in these cases. But it looks like one! I call it a “counterfeit compound subject.”
Research and Development builds the future for businesses and colleges.
Sanford and Son is Herb’s favorite TV show.
Harper and Row publishes books.
Some words function like “and” but don’t make a subject into a compound subject, often because they are prepositions: “as well as,” “together with,” “along with,”
“including,” “with,” and “in addition.” Thanks again to that website in Hartford, CN: Capital Community College and The Writer’s Craft with their many authors.
EXAMPLE: Mr. Jones along with Mrs. Smith is copying papers for the students.
Sample Sentences for the First 4 Rules of Subject-Verb Agreement.
Don’t use any helping verbs like “can, should, will,” etc.
Only use the present tense or the past tense of “be”—was/were. You can use "be" or "have" with a verb.
I . Present Tense with no infinitive: 3 rd person singular and plural. Be careful with apostrophe use.
The dog barks.
The dogs bark.
A lawyer’s cat plays with the other pets.
II. Words Between the Subject and Verb (usually prepositional phrases)
The basketball players at our college are highly skilled.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
The quarterback from Lufkin is already a regional legend.
III. Subject after Verb (“w” questions, here/there).
Where is my coffee cup?
There are many teachers across the hall.
Here is my money for the concert tickets.
IV. Compound Subjects (Two or more separate subjects or two units that refer to the same thing). Note: The second example is a Counterfeit Compound Subject so it’s singular not plural like the other two.
Jack and Jill go up the hill.
Barnes and Noble has a large bookstore in south Tyler.
John and I play soccer.