What Are Subject-Verb Agreements? Definitions and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on August 4, 2023

What is a subject-verb agreement? That's what this article will cover. You'll learn everything you need to know to get it right in your own writing.

In short:

  • Ensuring subject-verb agreement matches the verb's form to the subject.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Is Subject-Verb Agreement?

A sentence's subject and its verb are inextricably linked. The verb tells us more about what the subject is doing, being, thinking, or feeling. It makes sense then that the verb and the subject should match and mirror each other.

English grammar has six verb forms, and which one you use will depend on the subject. Specifically, whether it's singular or plural and whether it's third person plural or one of the other pronouns.

The long and short of it is that singular subjects take singular verbs, and plural subjects take plural verbs. This is illustrated in the two following examples where the subject is underlined, and the verb is in bold:

The train stops here.

The trains stop here.

In the first sentence, the singular subject 'train' requires that we use the verb format 'stops,' while the plural subject 'trains' in the second sentence begets the plural verb format 'stop.'

So far, so good. Pretty simple, right? But the one thing you might be surprised to hear is that this whole subject-verb agreement business mostly just applies to sentences where the subject is third-person singular. That's because, for the other pronouns, the verb format is the same regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural.

Case in point:

I like cookies.

You like cookies.

He/she/it likes cookies.

We like cookies.

They like cookies. 

This is always the case: in the present tense, all the pronouns are conjugated the same way except for the third-person singular. There is only one exception to this: the verb 'be.'

I am
You are
She/he/it is
We are
You are
They are

The third-person singular pronouns include 'he,' 'she,' and 'it.' To make this verb form, simply take the base verb and add -s, -es, or -ies (except for the verb 'have,' which becomes 'has').

Step One - Identify Whether the Subject is Singular or Plural

Now you might think that identifying whether the subject is singular or plural is simple enough. And most of the time, it is. But sometimes, it can trip you up. These are some exceptional cases where that could happen.

Nouns That Are Always Singular

The following nouns are always singular and should take singular verbs.

  • Indefinite pronouns
    Anybody who disagrees can take it up with the coach.
  • A pair
    My new pair of shoes is quite uncomfortable.
  • Plural-form subjects when presented as a title.
    Mathematics will help you a lot in life.
  • Gerunds
    Climbing that mountain was the hardest thing I've done.|
  • The phrase 'one of the' + [plural noun]
    One of my favorite pastimes has to be painting.
  • Noncount nouns
    This wine tastes fabulous!
  • Compound singular subjects with the word 'or' or 'nor.'
    Neither my mom nor my dad was able to dissuade me.
  • Amounts of money, distances, and periods of time.
    2000 kilometers is very far. 

Nouns That Can Be Singular or Plural

The following nouns can be either singular or plural, so it's up to you to decide the most appropriate form:

  • In sentences with compound subjects with the word 'or' or 'nor,' that are a mixture of singular and plural, the verb should take on the form of the subject its closest to. This is called the 'rule of proximity.'
    Either your friends or your brother has to apologize.
    Either your brother or your friends have to apologize.
  • Collective nouns
    The jury is still trying to reach a consensus.
    The jury are still trying to reach a consensus.
  • 'They' is a third-person pronoun that can be singular or plural, depending on whether you're talking about one person or several.
    Can you call the client and ask if they want to have lunch at 1 pm?
    My kids are still young; they are three and eight. 

Step Two - Use the Correct Verb Format

Now that you've identified whether the subject is singular or plural, you can decide which verb format to use: should it be singular or plural? Here are some valuable tips for choosing the correct verb format.

Don't Lose Track of the Subject

One of the most common subject-verb agreement errors occurs when people lose track of the actual subject of the sentence.

Here's an example:

The girl, despite everything her parents told her, knows that she must follow her heart.

Here, it could be easy to become misled and think that 'her parents' is the subject and that, with it being plural, the verb should be plural too. But the subject is, in fact, 'the girl,' which is singular, and 'despite everything her parents told her' is a prepositional phrase. It adds more information but doesn't change what the subject is.

All the Verbs in the Sentence Must Agree

Sometimes a sentence might have more than one verb. Make sure that all the verbs agree with the subject and not just one or some of them.

For my evening routine I brush my teeth, wash my face and read my book.

If another subject is introduced, then the verbs that relate to the new subject should agree with it. This compound sentence is a good example:

For my evening routine I brush my teeth, wash my face and read my book; and then my friend calls me.

Negatives and Questions

Only the auxiliary 'do' must comply with subject-verb agreement rules when forming a negative or interrogative sentence. The main verb gets a free pass and just stays the same regardless.

I don't know the words to this song.
She doesn't know the words to this song. 

Do you know the words?
Does she know the words?

Make Sure the Verb's a Verb

That's a bit of a weird thing to say, isn't it? "Make sure the verb's a verb." But it's true: some verbs aren't actually verbs. This means that they look like verbs but are being used for different purposes. These are known as verbals. Some common verbals are gerunds, infinitives, and participles. Since these aren't actually functioning as verbs in the sentence, they don't need to follow subject-verb agreement.

My teacher makes learning fun.

She said she needs to think about it. 

I don't want my mother to feel disappointed in me.

Concluding Thoughts on Subject-Verb Agreement

That concludes this article on subject-verb agreement. I hope you found it helpful and that you now feel well-equipped to get it right in your own writing. To be sure, let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Subject-verb agreement is a necessary part of constructing grammatically correct sentences.
  • It allows you to ensure that the verb's format matches the subject; it should be either singular or plural. 
  • The third-person singular is the one that's most likely to trip you up since all the other pronouns tend to have the same verb format, regardless of singularity or plurality. 
  • When checking subject-verb agreement, first locate your subject, then determine whether it's singular or plural. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might like our Grammar Book. It's a free online database full of articles like this one. We take complex grammar concepts and break them down into easy-to-read, easy-to-understand articles.

We encourage you to share this article on Twitter and Facebook. Just click those two links - you'll see why.

It's important to share the news to spread the truth. Most people won't.

Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

Add new comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WritingTips.org Newsletter
Receive information on
new articles posted, important topics, and tips.
Join Now
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.