Monday, July 22, 2013

Top 20 Grammar Errors: Subject-Verb Agreement

Subject-Verb Agreement

As I travel down this list of the twenty most common grammar errors, I am continually surprised. What I thought I knew so well, I learn is only the beginning.

Today’s grammar error number fourteen—subject verb agreement—seemed simple enough from the outset. This has to do with word endings (error number 6), specifically noun word endings. And, even more specifically, today’s error, I knew, had to do with the difference between a singular noun and a plural noun. It was going to be an easy-peasy blog today.

Then I discovered there are actually seven categories of subject-verb agreements.

·         Indefinite pronouns
·         Conjunctive phrases
·         Either/or and neither/nor
·         Positive and negative subjects in combination
·         Expletives
·         Plural nouns for single objects
·         Fractional phrases

Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns are pronouns that are not specific. That is, they do not replace any particular noun—thus, they are indefinite, or unsure pronouns.

There are two categories of indefinite pronouns.

The first list of indefinite pronouns refers to nonspecific nouns.

·         Anybody
·         Anything
·         Everyone
·         Nobody
·         No one
·         Somebody
·         Something
·         Anyone
·         Everybody
·         Everything
·         Non
·         Nothing
·         Someone

Anything is possible.

No one is going to get hurt.

The second list of indefinite pronouns point to a specific noun whose meaning is easily understood only because that noun was mentioned previously, or because the rest of the sentence that follows the indefinite pronoun makes the indefinite pronoun’s meaning clear.

·         All
·         Any
·         Each
·         Few
·         Neither
·         Some
·         Another
·         Both
·         Either
·         Many
·         One
·         several

Someone special is going to arrive.

Several were excited.

Most indefinite pronouns correspond to singular verbs. However, both, few, many, and several are all plural pronouns and thus correspond to plural verb forms.

Conjunctive Phrases

Remember the ABC School House Rocks Conjunction Junction video?

Words like and, or, and but can create phrases that can confuse the verb. Other word phrases found within a conjunctive element can complicate the verb issue as well, such as along with, as well as, and together with.

The father along with his children is taking a nap.

At first bat, the above sentence looks wrong. Feels wrong. Children is plural, but the subject is actually father, thus the verb has to be singular.

Sometimes, commas can clarify the situation.

The father, along with is children, is taking a nap.

Either/or and neither/ nor

Either and neither is a special case.

Or an exception.

Both words refer to two distinct nouns or subjects.

Either the couch or the bed will do for a nap.

Either will work.

Because either and neither refer to a multiplicity of words as opposed to a single word, one thinks right away that the singular form of the verb must be used. But you are wrong. You must use the singular verb form.

Unless of course you are employing informality or colloquialism.

Are either of you ready?

as opposed to

Is either of you ready?

And then you have to ask yourself what if the either/or neither/nor construction has a mixture of singular and plural nouns? What happens to the verb?

The plurality of the noun closest to the verb determines the verb form.

The either/or neither/nor construction is just something you have to remember. There’s nothing easy about this conundrum.

Positive and negative subjects in combination

And another weird one here too. What is a positive and negative subject combination, you ask?

Glad you asked.

Two nouns act as co-subjects in a sentence, but one is prefaced with the word not or some other negative connotation.

The baseball players, not the coach, have decided a forfeit.

The positive subject is players and the negative subject is coach. The verb decided must agree with players, thus we get have decided. Let’s reverse the sentence and see what we get:

The coach, not the baseball players, decided a forfeit.

See what happened? Coach is singular, so the verb became singular.


Occasionally, sentences begin with the words there or here. There and here can never ever be subjects of a sentence though. Ever. It’s an impossibility. Normally, you find an expletive construction in cemeteries.

Here lies John Doe.

Here refers to a place: John Doe’s grave. And, here is singular. John doesn’t have several graves. He has one, so why in the world is lies plural? Because here can never ever be the subject of a sentence.

Normal sentence structure looks like this:

Subject + verb + direct object

Expletives reverse the order.

Direct object + verb + subject

John Doe is the subject; therefore, he is the one doing the action: John Doe lies here. And the verb always agrees with the subject, not the direct object.

There are several choices.

Choices is plural, so the to be verb is plural.

Plural nouns for single objects

In grammar error number 6, we talked about word endings and how s marks plurality of a noun.

Cat versus cats

Of course, there are always exceptions.

·         If you have a bias, how many biases do you have?
·         If you have a pair of scissors, how many scissors do you have?
·         If you wear a pair of glasses, how many glasses do you have?
·         If you wear pants, how many pants are you wearing?

The answer to all of the questions above is one! These are nouns that have the s ending, but are all singular in nature. So these nouns, though they may look like they are plural, actually take a singular verb. Here’s a nice list of singular nouns ending in s.

And Last But Not Least: Fractional phrases

Fractional phrases are subject phrases that deal specifically with numbers. Depending upon the context, the verb can either be singular or plural.

A small percentage of the students are excited.

The subject here is percentage, but students is plural, so the context dictates the verb’s plurality. Whereas:

A large percentage of the student body has graduated.


Numbers in a mathematical formula are always linked with a plural verb, but the outcome of that formula is always singular. Again, the subject is percentage, but student body is singular, so the verb is singular.

Think We’re Done?

So, yeah, originally I was right in thinking subject-verb agreement had everything to do with singular and plural words, but sometimes it can get complicated as with fractional phrases or nouns that have the s ending but are really singular or—well, with any of the above seven classes of subject phrases.

Which leads us to…

Plural Verb Forms

What the heck does a plural verb look like? For the most part, we know it when we see it.

That’s kind of a lame answer, and the very reason subject-verb agreement is such a common grammar error. Here are some verb conjugation charts!

The verb to be:

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)

Note that the past tense is inside the parenthesis.

The verb to have:

I have (had)
We have (had)
You have (had)
You have (had)
He, she, it has (had)
They have (had)


Regular verb, e.g., to chase

I chase (chased)
We chase (chased)
You chase (chased)
You chase (chased)
He, she, it chases (chased)
They chase (chased)


And normally, at this point because it is the beginning of the week I’d add a This Week in Literature, but I’m exhausted!

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