Can’t We All Just Get Along? How to Make Subjects and Verbs Agree

The easiest way to explain subject-verb agreement is like this: Singular subjects require verbs in the singular form, while plural subjects require verbs in the plural form. For example:

The grass grows. (singular subject, verb in singular form)

The dogs bark. (plural subject, verb in plural form)

Piece of cake, right? You’d think so, but the reality is that sometimes getting your verbs to align with your subjects can actually be a tricky matter. Even the best writers get this wrong. And for everyone else? Well, probably best to keep reading.

The 411 on Subject-Verb Agreement

The surest way to make sure your subjects and verbs agree is to 1) accurately identify your subject as singular or plural and 2) conjugate your verb accordingly. Easy! The problem is that sometimes you’ve got to pay very close attention to your subject. Take a look at these examples:

Incorrect: Our selection of kitschy trinkets are unrivaled.

Correct: Our selection of kitschy trinkets is unrivaled.

Incorrect: Neither Ron nor his friends wants to miss the baseball game.

Correct: Neither Ron nor his friends want to miss the baseball game.

In both cases, the subject here isn’t necessarily straightforward. In the first example, we’re not talking about kitschy trinkets (plural), but rather a selection of them (singular). In the second example, we’re not referring to just Ron (singular), but to neither Ron nor his friend (plural). If this seems incredibly obvious to you, it should. But, having said that, people make this mistake all the time. Regardless of whether that’s because they’re rushing, aren’t paying close enough attention, or just don’t know, it’s important to catch this stuff and make sure you’re getting it right.

Avoiding Hard-to-Catch Mistakes

In intricate sentences, maintaining subject-verb agreement can get particularly tricky. Check out this example:

The rise of online shopping means opportunities in transportation and warehouse roles has risen.

If the issue isn’t immediately clear, have a look at the version below. We’ve identified the elements of the sentences, with the subject in bold and the corresponding verb underlined:

The rise of online shopping means opportunities in transportation and warehouse roles has risen.

Of course, “has” needs to be “have” to agree with “opportunities.” This is a good example of something that’s grammatically incorrect, but very easy to miss because “has” doesn’t sound jarring to the ear within the context of the sentence. In other words, if you’re unsure, it’s not blatantly obvious that you’re wrong.

It’s also worth noting that the word “of” is at fault in many subject-verb issues, a point that this helpful article details.

Dealing with Subject-Verb Agreement with Multiple Subjects

Complicating matters further are multiple or compound subjects. Here, the most important consideration is whether or not the subject is treated as a singular entity or individual entities (and thus requires a plural form of the verb). That’s what allows both of the following sentences to be correct:

The peanut butter and jelly is one of the most popular sandwiches on the kids’ menu.

The dog and cat are chasing each other in the backyard.

For more information on multiple/compound subjects (and how to spot them), this article can provide a number of added insights.

The Bottom Line

Mastering subject-verb agreement may be something you thought you checked off in the third grade. And in 95 percent of cases that’s probably true. The thing is there are these tricky instances where getting your subjects and verbs to align can actually be a bit tougher and require some thought. Now that you know what to look for, however, you should be well on your way to always getting it right.

And if you need a hand keeping an eye on subject-verb agreement in your content, or just can’t be bothered to worry about this kind of thing, Acrolinx is designed to ensure that no slip-up will go unnoticed. Take a tour of our platform to find out how we can help.