Subject-Predicate (Verb) Agreement

Make sure you don't have subject‐verb agreement problems in a complete sentence. Distractions within a sentence can make you misidentify subject and verb, leading to an agreement problem. Remember that a verb must agree in person and number with its subject, regardless of other elements in a sentence.

Locating the subject of a sentence

Your first job is to locate the subject of the sentence. To do this, find the verb, the action word or the state‐of‐being word, and then determine who or what is being talked about. Then ask yourself, Is the subject first person ( I/we), second person ( you), or third person ( he, she, it/they)? Is the subject singular or plural? When you've answered these questions, you will know which form the verb should take. Singular subjects take singular verbs, and plural subjects take plural verbs.

Subject-verb agreement with a compound subject

In sentences with more than one subject (a compound subject), the word and usually appears between the elements.

Use a plural verb with a compound subject.

Drinking a glass of milk and soaking in the tub help me fall asleep.
NOT Drinking a glass of milk and soaking in the tub helps me fall asleep.

A concerned teacher and a vigilant parent urge her to take the exam.
NOT A concerned teacher and a vigilant parent urges her to take the exam.

If each or every precedes a compound subject, treat the subject as singular.

Each dog and cat is to be fed twice a day.
Every house and garage has been searched.

Additive phrases

An additive phrase sometimes makes a sentence look as if it has a compound subject. Examples of these phrases are accompanied by, along with, as well as, in addition to, including, and together with. When you use one of these phrases, you are thinking of more than one person or thing. But grammatically these phrases aren't conjunctions like and. They are actually modifying the subject, rather than making it compound. Therefore, do not use a plural verb because of these modifying phrases.

The President of the United States, accompanied by his advisors, was en route to Europe.
NOT The President of the United States , accompanied by his advisors, were en route to Europe.
The instructor, along with the class, is angry about the room change.
NOT The instructor, along with the class, are angry about the room change.

Phrases and clauses between subject and verb

Watch out for phrases and clauses that come between the subject and predicate in a sentence. To make sure you have the right person and number for the verb, mentally eliminate intervening phrases and clauses.

The speech that provoked the demonstration and caused the closing of the university was filled with inaccuracies.
NOT The speech that provoked the demonstration and caused the closing of the university were filled with inaccuracies.

Find the verb ( was/were filled) and ask yourself, “What was filled with inaccuracies?” This question will help you locate the subject ( speech). When you eliminate the intervening clauses, you will find the simple subject and predicate, which in this case is speech was filled.

Subject following verb

Although the standard word order in an English sentence is subject‐verb‐object, exceptions are common.

Don't count on word order to help you identify the subject.

Off in the corner, out of plain sight, sits the famous artist. (the subject “artist” follows the verb “sits.”)

If you decide to put a subject after a verb, be sure to check agreement.

In the doorway wait the head of the mob and two of his thugs.
not In the doorway waits the head of the mob and two of his thugs.

Because the subject is compound, you need the plural form of the verb.

In the sentence construction there is or there are, the word there is never the subject. These sentence constructions tend to be passive and vague, so it's best to limit them. If you do use a there is or a there are, remember that your subject will follow the predicate. Choose there is if the subject is singular, and there are if the subject is plural.

There are millions of people who would rather be poor than ask for government help.
NOT There is (or There's) millions of people who would rather be poor than ask for government help.

A clearer sentence construction would be Millions of people would rather be poor than ask for government help.

Subject-verb agreement

The conjunctions or, either …or, and neither …nor ask you to choose between things rather than add things. If both elements are singular, use a singular verb. If both elements are plural, use a plural verb. If one element is singular and one is plural, choose the verb that agrees with the element closest to it.

The director or the assistant director is planning to be on location.
NOT The director or the assistant director are planning to be on location.

In the previous examples, both elements are singular and therefore the verb is singular. In the following example, one element ( coach) is singular and one ( members) is plural. Since the plural is closer to the verb, the verb should be plural ( were).

Either the coach or the team members were responsible for the dispute.
NOT Either the coach or the team members was responsible for the dispute.

It is better when using a subject with one singular subject and one plural subject to put the plural noun closest to the verb or to rewrite the sentence entirely to avoid awkwardness.

Subject-verb agreement in relative clauses

Agreement problems can occur in relative clauses using which, that, or one of those who.

The verb in a relative clause must agree with the relative pronoun's antecedent (the word the pronoun stands for). Always ask yourself what the relative pronoun refers to.

He decided to write novels, which are his favorite form.
NOT He decided to write novels, which is his favorite form.

Novels is the antecedent of which, and therefore the verb must be plural ( are). A common mistake is to choose the verb that agrees with the complement in the relative clause ( form). Remember that the complement is not the antecedent of the pronoun.

The construction one of those who causes confusion when it comes to subject‐verb agreement in the relative clause. Decide whether one or those is the antecedent of who in choosing the right verb.

In the following sentence, the antecedent is bosses, and therefore the plural verb believe is correct.

Connie is one of those bosses who believe in giving their employees freedom to make decisions.

The addition of only makes it clear that the antecedent is one rather than bosses, and therefore the singular verb believes is correct.

Connie is the only one of the bosses who believes in giving her employees freedom to make decisions.

When you use a one of those who construction, look at the clause beginning with who and then decide what the antecedent is. In most cases you will decide on the plural form of the verb.

Dr. Wolfe is one of those teachers who entertain students as well as teach them.
One of those business owners who believe in putting the customer first, Jim won the loyalty of the community.

Note that while the case of the pronoun ( who or whom) depends on the pronoun's role in its own clause, the number of the verb depends on the pronoun's antecedent.