Eight Rules of Subject Verb Agreement

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Eight Rules of Subject Verb Agreement

A Connexions Learning Module

By J. D. Meyer

Eight Rules of Subject Verb Agreement

A Connexions Learning Module

By J. D. Meyer

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Eight Rules of Subject Verb Agreement

Subject-Verb Agreement: First Four Rules


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.

3. Subject after Verb

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.

  1. The dog barks.

  2. The dogs bark.

  3. A lawyer’s cat plays with the other pets.


II. Words Between the Subject and Verb (usually prepositional phrases)
  1. The basketball players at our college are highly skilled.

  2. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

  3. The quarterback from Lufkin is already a regional legend.


III. Subject after Verb (“w” questions, here/there).
  1. Where is my coffee cup?

  2. There are many teachers across the hall.

  3. 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.

  1. Jack and Jill go up the hill.

  2. Barnes and Noble has a large bookstore in south Tyler.

  3. John and I play soccer.



Eight Rules of Subject Verb Agreement

Quiz on the First Four Rules


Eight Rules of Subject Verb Agreement

Subject-Verb Agreement: Second Four Rules

5. Indefinite Pronouns

Most indefinite pronouns take singular verbs. Many are compound words that start with “any, every, no,” and “some”; they end with “one, body,” and “thing”. See the table at the end of this section. Only five always take plural verbs: “others, both, many, few,” and “several”. Remember the acronym, OBMFS.

Some indefinite pronouns can take a singular or plural verb based on whether the noun to which they are referring is uncountable (singular) or countable (plural). Uncountable words are far less common. They’re really tiny like sand, sugar, rice, etc. These varying indefinite pronouns may also be used as adjectives before a noun. The varying indefinite pronouns are “all, any, more, most, none,” and “some.” I’ve italicized the verbs this time.


Table 1.
Always Singular
Everyone has to do his or her work.
Almost nobody gets away with laziness forever.
Something for nothing is a poor option.
Is anybody home?
Always Plural
Others use you, but I just want to move in.
Both want a cat.
Manyare chosen, but feware called.”
Several like playing racquetball.
Somelike grammar better than a kick in the head.
(This indefinite pronoun refers to a countable noun).
Some sand is in my shoe
(This indefinite adjective describes an uncountable noun).
Most of the class is here today! (refers to one group)
Most students love computers (refers to a lot of people).


Table 2.
      Always singular (19)      
1. anybody everybody nobody somebody another each
2. anyone everyone no one someone much either
3. anything everything nothing something one neither
4.   every        
      Always plural (5)      
1. others both many few several  
      Singular or plural, depending on context (6)      
1. all more none      
2. any most some      

6. Collective Nouns

A collective noun refers to a group of living beings or things as a single unit; therefore, these nouns take singular verbs. Unlike indefinite pronouns, the collective noun may become plural by simply adding an “-s” when necessary, and then we need a plural verb.


Collective nouns often include group activities like “audience, class, crowd, faculty, jury, school, staff,” and “team”; frequently, collective nouns are military like “army, air force, navy, battalion, and “squadron.” Social animals can get together in herds (mammals), flocks (birds), and schools (fish). That audience was very polite yet noisy.

  • Both juries were hung and didn’t reach a verdict.

  • The air force seems to get more emphasis in war since 1990.

  • Those squadrons receive decorations every year.

    • A buffalo herd is no longer a rare sight; in fact, buffaloes were removed from the endangered list.


An amount takes a singular verb because the amount is treated as a unit, a singular noun. Sums and products take singular verbs in mathematical equations. Fractional expressions vary depending on the meaning. I’ll italicize the verbs this time.

  • $2.29/pound is a good deal for a roast.

  • Three-fourths of our student body votes Democrat.

  • Three-fourths of the professors vote Republican.


7. When Singular & Plural Subjects are Joined by “or”—and When Positive & Negative Subjects are Joined.

What do we do when a singular and plural subject are joined by “or”? Make the verb agree with the nearest subject. Obviously, when “or” connects two singular nouns, the verb will be singular. This time, I’ll italicize the subject that is nearest the verb. Here are some other expressions that fit this pattern: "either...or," "neither...nor," and "not only...but also."


  • Either stucco or cement blocks are used for residential construction in Mexico.

  • Either cement blocks or stucco is used for residential construction in Mexico.

What do we do when we have a positive subject and a negative subject of different numbers? Let’s check that website again begun by the late Dr. Charles Darling of Hartford, Connecticut. The verb must agree with the positive subject. This rule subdivision would receive my vote for "Teach After Passing Developmental English."


  • The cooks but not the head chef have ordered from the restaurant supply company.

  • It is not the assistant coaches but the head coach who calls the audibles.

8. Special Cases: Looks are Deceiving

Some words end in “-s” but refer to one unit and take singular verbs like “mathematics, physics, statistics, thermodynamics, news,” and “measles.” Notice how many of these words are technical subjects. Some words ending in “-s” refer to a single thing yet are plural and require a plural verb – such as “assets” and “earnings.” Lots of clothes with two limbs take plural verbs even when you’re just referring to one pair such as “pants, jeans, glasses,” and “trousers.” The title of a book or work of art is always singular even if a noun in the title is plural. This time, I’ll underline the verb. As for the subjunctive mood, that area is so complicated that it merits a separate small grammar chapter section.

  • Sometimes “no news is good news.”

  • Our thanks go to the maintenance worker who removed the moldy carpet.

  • My newest black jeans are my favorite pair.

  • Mo’ Better Blues was an early Denzel Washington movie that was directed by Spike Lee.

Sample Sentences for the Last 4 Rules of Subject-Verb Agreement

V. Indefinite Pronouns (usually take singular verbs)

Nearly everyone in China likes rice.

Some like grammar better than a kick in the head (countable-plural).

The sugar stays in the big, sturdy sack (uncountable noun-singular).

Both want information on actually starting a website (OBMFS-plural).

VI. Collective Nouns (usually singular)

Our basketball team has a lot of potential.

That crowd is loud but pleasant.

Flocks of birds fly south for the winter.

VII. Agreement with Nearest Subject when Joined by “or” & with Positive Subject if Other Subject is Negative.

Coach or his players shoot baskets during lunch.

The players or the coach shoots baskets during lunch.

Not the babies’ daddies but the mother cat has the dominant fur color gene—reddish-orange in eight out of ten kittens.

VIII. Special Cases

Statistics was always my favorite Math class (a class that looks plural).

My black jeans are my best-looking pair (two-pronged unit).

The good news about the new students’ grades is wonderful.


Eight Rules of Subject Verb Agreement

Quiz on the Second Four Rules

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Eight Rules of Subject Verb Agreement

Answers to the Quizzes

Answers to the Subject Verb Agreement Quizzes

First Four Rules of Subject-Verb Agreement Quiz Answers
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Last Four Rules of Subject-Verb Agreement Quiz Answers
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Eight Rules of Subject Verb Agreement

J. D. Meyer.

Meyer, J.

Subject-Verb Agreement .
September 1, 2010.