How to Figure Out Subject-Verb Agreement

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “subject-verb agreement.” People often refer to it when they’re talking about common grammar mistakes. In some cases, subject-verb agreement is really easy to understand, but in others, it’s pretty confusing.

Subject-verb agreement refers to the rule that subjects and verbs must agree in number. Singular subjects take singular verbs, and plural subjects take plural verbs.

Before we look at the confusing sentences, let’s focus on sentences in which subject-verb agreement is obvious.

Obvious Pairings

Sometimes things go together in a way that’s obvious.

How to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement image Five Dollar Subway PairHow to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement

(I know a jingle that gets on everybody’s nerves…)

How to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement image Justin Bieber Adoring Fans PairHow to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement

(Duh)

How to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement image NCAA Bracket Productivity PairHow to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement

(Occurring in every office at this very moment)

It can be the same with subjects and verbs.

She loves basketball.

“She” is the subject of the sentence. “She” is singular (it refers to one person), so it needs a singular verb (“loves”). I would never say, “she love basketball.”

My friends love basketball.

“My friends” is the subject of the sentence, and the subject is plural. So it takes a plural verb (“love”). I would never say, “my friends loves basketball.”

It’s easy to make sure your subjects and verbs agree when you have straightforward sentences. But it’s slightly more difficult when you have compound subjects, words like “or,” or pronouns like “everybody” and “everyone.”

Less-Than-Obvious Pairings

The sentence “She loves basketball” has one subject. So does the sentence “My friends love basketball.” But how do you make subjects and verbs agree when you have two subjects in one sentence? Sometimes a subject pairs with a verb in a less-than-obvious way, kind of like other things that are related in a way that’s not blatant:

How to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement image Charlie Sheen Emilio Estevez PairHow to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement

(Literally related in this case)

How to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement image McDonalds London Olympics 2012How to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement

(Wait, how did this partnership happen?)

When you have two or more individual subjects joined together by “and,” “or,” or “nor,” you have a compound subject. Subjects connected by “and” have different rules than subjects connected by “or” or “nor.”

Compound Subjects Joined by “And”

Consider this sentence:

My mom and my sister eat Subway sandwiches.

This sentence has a compound subject. There are two people involved here (my mom and my sister), so I need a plural verb. “My mom” is singular and “my sister” is singular too, but in this sentence, they come together and take a plural verb. It’s the same with this sentence:

My cousin and her mom eat Subway sandwiches.

“My cousin” is singular and “her mom” is singular too. But again, in this sentence, these two singular subjects come together and take a plural verb because there are two people involved.

This sentence also takes a plural verb:

My cousin and her friends eat sandwiches.

Do subjects connected by “and” always take plural verbs? In short, no. If the two things joined by “and” combine to form one idea or thing, we use a singular verb, like this:

Peanut butter and jelly is tastier than a Subway sandwich.

Compound Subjects Joined by “Or/Nor”

When two subjects are joined by “or” or “nor,” the verb agrees with the subject that’s closest to the verb.

Your friends or your sister watches the basketball game.

In this sentence, “your sister” is the subject closest to the verb, and it’s singular. So I use the singular verb “watches.”

Your sister or your friends watch the basketball game.

This is the same sentence, but here “your friends” is closest to the verb, and it’s plural. So I use the plural verb “watch.”

Strange Pairings

Some words always take singular verbs: each, everyone, everybody, everything, anybody, anyone, nobody, somebody, someone, no one. It may seem counter-intuitive to use a singular verb with a word like “everybody” and “everyone” because those words look plural. But in reality, they’re singular. So while pairing those words with a singular verb may initially seem strange, it’s absolutely correct. And don’t some of the most wonderful pairings also sound downright weird?

How to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement image Chicken and Waffles PairHow to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement

(Delicious in their own rights too)

How to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement image Wendys Frosty French Fries PairHow to Figure Out Subject Verb Agreement

(Determining the right Frosty to fry ratio is key)

Some examples:

Everyone at my office is obsessed with March Madness.

Nothing is the same since Pittsburgh lost.

Everything Justin Bieber touches is put up for sale on eBay.

Zeroing In on the Subject

It helps to remember that in many sentences, the subject isn’t always the word closest to the verb. When other words get in between a subject and a verb, you can mentally cross out those words. Take this sentence:

One of the french fries is burnt.

Here, “french fries” is closest to the verb, so it would be very tempting to make the verb plural. But “french fries” isn’t the subject; “one” is. It helps to cross out that prepositional phrase.

One of the french fries is burnt.

Now it’s more obvious that “is” is the correct verb.

The same goes with these sentences:

The people who cook chicken wear aprons.

The Frosty with two straws tastes like it has extra chocolate.

Each of the grammarians likes milkshakes.

Zeroing in on the subject makes it easier to figure out which verb to use.

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