Grammar Camp: Common expression errors Part 1: Subject-verb agreement
Verbs need to agree with (or "match") their simple subjects in the following two ways:
- in person (first, second, or third)
- in number (singular or plural)
|First person (the person speaking is the subject)||I||We|
|Second person (the person spoken to is the subject)||You||You|
|Third person (the person/thing spoken about is the subject)||He, She, They, It||They|
You'll notice in this chart that the pronoun "they" can be used as either a singular or a plural pronoun. Even when "they" is used to refer to a single person (either because that is the pronoun they use or because the gender identity of the person referenced is unknown), it agrees with a plural verb. For example:
"I am so excited that we hired Terry. They are such great fun to have around the office!"
If you don't know what verb form agrees with the person/number of your subject, the best idea is to look it up in a reliable grammar text. Maxine Ruvinsky's Practical Grammar (2014) is my personal favourite.
Some subject-verb agreement challenges
Nouns vs. predicate nouns
A verb must agree with its subject, not its object complement or predicate noun.
Which verb is correct?
The last thing he saw before falling asleep on the couch were/was1 the bottles of wine and plates of cheese all over the living room.
Relative pronouns and verbs
When a clause has a relative pronoun (WHO, WHICH, or THAT) as its subject, the verb must agree with the pronoun’s antecedent (i.e., the noun the pronoun takes the place of).
Which verb is correct?
She is one of those professors who has/have2 difficulty marking papers on time.
Other kinds of challenging sentences
For each of these examples, see if you can determine the subject and the correct verb form? SOLUTIONS below!
When words intervene
Using “or” or correlatives
Using collective nouns
A generous view of jagged mountains and crystalline lakes is/are3 available for a premium price.
The monastery’s entire collection of books—including authors from Alcuin to Xerxes—have/has4 been moved underground.
Either Herbert or Amanda has/have5 to leave the island.
Neither the ingredients nor the oven were/was6 to blame for that disastrous dinner.
Not only the chef but also the ingredients produce/produces7 wonderful flavours.
Parliament is/are8 in recess until November.
The audience was/were9 wonderful tonight.
The audience was/were10 giggling, picking their noses, and answering their cell phones.
TIP: When prepositional phrases like “of [object]“ intervene between the subject and the verb, in almost all cases the verb must agree with the subject of the sentence, not with the object of the prepositional phrase.
Stay tuned for the next two parts of this series on common expression errors: Pronoun Perplexities and Apostrophe Angst!
Thank you to Dr. Amanda Goldrick-Jones for generating this content for the Grammar Camp blog series.