One of the fundamental rules of English grammar is subject-verb agreement, which states that the verb of a sentence should always agree with its subject in number. This means that if a sentence has a singular subject, it should be followed by a singular verb form. Conversely, if a sentence has a plural subject, it should be followed by a plural verb form. The rule of subject-verb agreement removes ambiguity and enhances communication and understanding.
Basics of Subject-Verb Agreement
Before we dive into more complex rules and exceptions, let's start with the most basic rule of subject-verb agreement. In its simplest form, if the subject is singular, the verb should also be singular, and if the subject is plural, the verb should also be plural. Here are a couple of examples:
- The cat is chasing its tail. (singular subject and verb)
- The cats are chasing their tails. (plural subject and verb)
Identifying Singular and Plural Subjects
The first step towards mastering subject-verb agreement is accurately identifying the number of your subject. This involves differentiating between singular and plural subjects. Some subjects may seem plural when they are actually singular and vice versa. Let's explore this concept with examples:
- Everybody loves a good movie. (Even though 'everybody' refers to multiple people, it's a singular subject.)
- A bunch of bananas is on the table. (Again, 'a bunch of bananas' seems like multiple items, but it is considered a single unit or entity, thus it requires a singular verb.)
Dealing with Infinite Subjects
Sentences that begin with 'there is' or 'there are' are also subject to the rule of subject-verb agreement. In such cases, the subject usually appears after the verb, but the same rules apply. See the examples below:
- There is a book on the table. (singular subject and verb)
- There are books on the table. (plural subject and verb)
Managing Compound Subjects
Another scenario that needs consideration is when two or more subjects are connected by 'and'. In that case, the verb should usually be plural. However, if the subjects are connected by 'or', 'either/or', 'neither/nor', the verb should agree with the subject closest to the verb. Check out the examples below for better illustration:
- John and Sally are at the park. (compound subject requires plural verb)
- Neither the cat nor the dogs are in the yard. (plural subject closer to the verb requires plural verb)
Collective nouns such as 'team', 'class', 'audience', etc., can be particularly tricky. Typically, if the collective noun is acting as one unit, it takes a singular verb. If the group is acting individually, it takes a plural verb. Check these examples:
- The team is playing well today. (acting as one unit – singular verb)
- The team are arguing amongst themselves. (acting individually – plural verb)
Dealing with Indefinite Pronouns
Most indefinite pronouns, such as 'everyone', 'everything', 'nobody', 'anyone', and 'each', are singular. Thus, they need singular verbs. Here are examples:
- Each of the students is responsible for their own work.
- Nobody knows the trouble I've seen.
Phrases indicating amounts of money, periods of time, or quantities of measurement are usually taken as a whole, or singular entity, and therefore use singular verbs. Here are some examples:
- Five dollars is the price of admission.
- Two years is the maximum sentence for that offence.
Subject-verb agreement can be tricky, especially when dealing with complex sentences, compound subjects, and special cases like collective nouns and indefinite pronouns. But with careful attention and practice, you can master this essential grammar rule and significantly improve the clarity of your writing.