by Mackenzie Batten
One of my most traumatic writing experiences in high school was when my literature teacher senior year told me that for each incorrect subject-verb agreement, he would take off ten percent of my final paper grade. When I graduated, I thought the harsh grading was over—but here at Principia, I have had professors with similar rules and grading patterns as my high school teacher.
Subject-verb agreement is when the subject and the verb of a sentence match—that is, a singular subject must have a singular verb and a plural subject must have a plural verb. I believe that subject-verb agreement is crucial because it helps the clarity and the flow of your writing. If you write using a singular subject and then use a plural verb, it might confuse the reader as to how many people you are writing about. So to avoid confusion and impress your teachers—here are some of the rules I have learned while trying to master this skill.
Here are the four main scenarios where confusion arises. To help demonstrate these concepts, the subjects will be bolded and the verbs will be italicized.
- In a sentence where the subject includes more than one noun and there is an “and” between them, use a plural verb.
Nancy is selling her house this summer.
Nancy and Bruce are selling their house this summer.
In the first sentence, “Nancy,” singular, agrees with “is,” because “is” is also singular. But in the second sentence, there is an “and” between the two singular nouns, making them a plural subject, so the plural “are” is used. That wasn’t so hard, was it? But it gets trickier, so stick with me.
- In a sentence where the subject uses more than one singular noun and there is an “or” between them, use a singular verb.
Emily or Ava is in the room with Barrett’s guinea pig.
In this example, the use of “or” makes the singular nouns of “Ava” and “Emily” a singular subject, so “is,” a singular verb, is correct. I know that that idea can be confusing, but just remember that the use of “or” between two singular subject means a singular verb!
- In a sentence where “or” is used in between a singular noun and a plural noun, the verb should agree with the closest noun.
Either Charlie or his friends work at the pub every day.
In the first sentence, the verb agrees with the plural “his friends” because it is closer to the verb. Just remember—whichever subject is closer is the one that needs to be in agreement.
- In a sentence where there is a quantifier—a single subject that refers to multiple people—have the verb agree with the quantifier, rather than the noun it is referring to.
Everybody knows about Principia’s rugby team.
“Everybody” is a quantifier, since it is a singular subject, it is correct to use a singular verb. I know that seems backwards because “everybody” refers to multiple people, but it is actually singular!
I hope this helped! Please come to visit any of the writing tutors if you have any more questions!
Mackenzie is a political science and economics double major. She enjoys competing in Principia’s Moot Court and on the Mediation Team.