Imagine being at a party and meeting somebody for the first time.
He introduces himself this way:
“Hi there, my name is Tom. I comes from the village of Bendemeer and I currently works for a technology company. I has three kids and two dogs at home. I like to drinks coffee and read a good book during my free time.”
Did hearing this make you raise your eyebrows?
I certainly hope so.
You might already be familiar with English verbs, but do you know how to apply the rules of subject-verb agreement?
Tom doesn’t. He should’ve said:
“Hi there, my name is Tom. I come from the village of Bendemeer and I currently work for a technology company. I have three kids and two dogs at home. I like to drink coffee and read a good book during my free time.”
Notice how the verb forms have now changed to match the subject of Tom’s sentences—in this case, “I.”
Subject-verb agreement is one of the most important ways to make your English sentences grammatically correct and natural-sounding.
It might seem confusing at first, but it’s actually quite simple!
We’ll walk you through all the essential rules with plenty of examples. We’ll even give you a little quiz at the end of the post to make sure you understood.
How Can I Find the Subject and Verb in a Sentence?
Verbs are words (or a group of words) that indicate an action, an event or a state.
Tom threw the ball. (Action)
The bridge collapsed. (Event)
Jessica seems uncertain about her project. (State)
The subject is the person, group of people or item that completes the action of the verb. So in the sentences above, the subjects are:
In English, the verb form changes to match (or “agree” with) the subject. This is otherwise known as “subject-verb agreement.”
Now let’s look at how subject-verb agreement works.
English Language Subject Verb Agreement Made Easy! 4 Steps + a Quiz with Answers
1. How to Change Your Verb for Singular or Plural Subjects
Subject-verb agreement is actually easier in English than in some other languages that have lots and lots of verb forms. The important thing is to know the difference between singular and plural subjects.
Note that we’re working only with present tense sentences at the moment. We’ll show you what happens in other tenses later in this post.
Singular subjects involve just one person or thing. These include the pronouns “he,” “she” and “it,” as well as singular people or things (“Mr. Smith,” “the ball,” etc.). Some pointers to note:
- Words like “anyone,” “everyone,” “each,” “either” and “neither” are considered singular.
- Group nouns like “club,” “company,” “family” and “team” are also considered singular in American English, since they’re counted as one entity. In British English, group nouns may be considered plural.
When you have a singular subject, you need to add an “s” to the base of your verb in order for it to agree. For example, let’s take the verb “to dance.” With a singular subject, we add “s” onto the base, “dance,” to get “dances.”
William dances to the music.
Here are some more examples with different verbs:
The monkey eats bananas.
Timmy gives his Mother some flowers.
When provoked, it barks.
Everyone takes a prize before they leave.
Each person collects a sandwich from the counter.
The team celebrates.
Every Sunday my family gathers to eat together.
Meanwhile, plural subjects include pronouns like “they” and “we” or plural people or things (“my friends,” “the documents,” etc.).
The only complications are the personal pronouns “you” and “I.” “I” is a singular pronoun and “you” can be singular or plural depending on context. However, they follow the same subject-verb agreement rule as plural subjects.
And this rule is even easier than the last one! You just use the base form of the verb.
They wave at us.
The children ride their bicycles to school.
I love to sing.
We are cold.
You take a photograph of them.
Today, I feel better.
Similarly, compound subjects that are joined using linking words such as “and” should be matched with base form verbs. Take for instance:
Jay and Mary visit Grandmother at the hospital.
The famous English-language song “The Gambler” is a fantastic way to hear these rules in practice. The song uses lots of different singular and plural subjects paired up with easy English verbs.
If you want to learn English grammar from other fun, real English videos, FluentU is the perfect tool for you.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
2. Make Sure Your Subject and Verb Still Agree When…
…the subject and verb are separated:
Sometimes, a descriptive phrase will separate your subject and verb, but the same rules as above still apply.
The elderly man buys some flowers.
The elderly man in the red shirt buys some flowers.
The group of children wave at us.
The group of children on the school bus wave at us.
The baker gives an extra loaf of bread whenever we visit.
The baker in that famous bread shop gives an extra loaf of bread whenever we visit.
…the verb comes before the subject:
In questions, the placement of the subject and verb are often inverted, but they must still match.
I am next in line.
Am I next in line?
They are coming to visit us.
Are they coming to visit us?
…the sentence is negative:
We can make a sentence negative by adding the word “not.” Subject-verb agreement rules still apply.
I am next in line.
I am not next in line.
Tom is coming to visit us.
Tom is not coming to visit us.
3. How Does Subject-Verb Agreement Work in Other Tenses?
The simple past tense:
In the English simple past tense, the verb form will generally look the same whether you have a singular or plural subject. Let’s take a look at some examples.
A sentence with a singular subject in the present tense would be expressed as:
The child waves at me.
But in past tense:
The child waved at me.
Similarly, a plural subject in the present tense would be expressed as:
The children wave at me.
But in the past tense, our verb form is the same as before:
The children waved at me.
The following is another example:
Jane visited the doctor. (Singular subject, past tense)
Jane and Kate visited the doctor. (Plural subject, past tense)
However, one important exception is the verb “to be.” This verb does change form for different subjects in the past tense.
I was tired this morning.
She was tired this morning
You were tired this morning.
We were tired this morning.
They were tired this morning.
Compound tenses use a “helping” verb like “to have” or “to be” along with the main verb. They can express events that happened already in the past, are expected to happen in the future and more.
For these sentences, the main verb will change to show tense, but will look the same for all subjects. However, you need to make sure your helping verb agrees with the subject.
Jim eats his dinner. They eat their dinner.
Jim has eaten his dinner. They have eaten their dinner.
I am planning to leave work early tonight. My kids are planning to meet me at the restaurant.
I was planning to come home early tonight. My kids were planning to meet me at the restaurant.
4. How Does Subject-verb Agreement Work with Modal Verbs?
Modal verbs are another form of “helping” verb that precede the main verb. They are words such as as “can,” “might” and “must” that express possibility, permission and more. Here’s a full run-down on English modal verbs if you’re unfamiliar or need a refresher.
With modal verbs, you don’t need to worry so much about subject-verb agreement. They take the same form for all subjects, and the main verb takes its base form.
Cassandra could study a lot harder.
My classmates could study a lot harder.
Let’s look at another example.
You must leave before noon tomorrow.
Janet and Ashley must leave before noon tomorrow.
We must leave before noon tomorrow.
Try It Yourself!
Can you spot the mistakes in the following sentences?
- The cost of all these items have risen.
- Each of the suspects were arrested.
- The boss and his secretary has disappeared.
- Neither his father nor his mother are alive.
- The success or failure of the project depend on the team.
- James could packs his lunch for work.
- Allison and I walks up the hill every Monday evening.
Did you get them correct?
- The cost of all these items has risen.
- Each of the suspects was arrested.
- The boss and his secretary have disappeared.
- Neither his father nor his mother is alive.
- The success or failure of the project depends on the team.
- James could pack his lunch for work.
- Allison and I walk up the hill every Monday evening.
For even more practice, here’s an interactive subject-verb agreement quiz from BusinessWriting.com.
Turn that subject-verb agreement headache into something relaxing and easy! We hope you now can see that it’s really not as hard as it looks.