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"Concordance between subjects and verbs are essential for good grammar."––Abram Agnew Ersa
Does this quote seem grammatically correct to you?
But do you know why it's grammatically incorrect?
While the author's sentiment is accurate, he hasn't actually made the sentence's subject and verb agree.
"Subject"? "Verb"? "Agree"?
In this article, we will simplify the task of subject–verb agreement, emphasizing the subjects and verbs in the subject–verb agreement examples we give below. Through these examples, you will learn the various concord rules in English-language usage. Let’s dive in!
First Principles: Simplicity
All sentences require a subject and a verb. When you say "I am," you identify yourself ("I") as the subject and the act of being ("am") as the verb. Even a one-word imperative sentence (e.g., "Go!") has both a subject and a verb because the speaker is implicitly commanding someone or some group (i.e., the subject) to perform an action (i.e., the verb "go").
Don't leave yet, though! We're just getting to the issue of concord rules in English.
All verbs are conjugated to match with their subjects. Thus, "I am" differs from "you are," which differs from "he is," etc. Furthermore, our one-word imperative sentence ("Go!") only has one conjugation because the implied subject of that example is always "you."
However, if we switch the command to a mere statement of fact, then the number of potential subjects increases, as does the number of matching conjugations: "I go," "you go," "Clarice goes," "it goes," "we go," etc.
With all sentences, if you can recognize the subject and know how to conjugate the verb, you cannot fail to produce subject–verb agreement. The challenge is learning how to recognize subjects and verbs in complicated sentences. The next section of this article provides numerous subject–verb agreement examples for complex sentences.
Multiple Figures of Speech
Let's return to the quote at the beginning of this article:
"Concordance between subjects and verbs are essential for good grammar."
The author failed to achieve subject–verb agreement because he assumed that the plural phrase "subjects and verbs" was the subject of the sentence. Thus, he conjugated the verb "to be" in the plural form ("are"). However, the actual subject of the sentence is "concordance," a singular noun. Thus, he should have used the singular conjugation, as in the following sentence:
"Concordance between subjects and verbs is essential for good grammar."
How can you tell the difference? The difference is in the recognition of additional information. The subject is always necessary information: "Concordance is essential to good grammar." The phrase "between subjects and verbs" is additional information (crucial information in this case, but additional nonetheless).
Think of the following sentence:
"The difference between moths and butterflies is essential."
The phrase "The difference" is necessary information; the phrase "between moths and butterflies" provides additional information. Thus, the singular verb is conjugated ("is").
That said, be aware that some nouns in the English language are usually singular but, depending on context, can be plural:
"The behavioral science team is a carefully orchestrated unit."
"The behavioral science team are in disagreement about the correct assessment."
The first sentence emphasizes the team's collectivity; thus, they are a singular unit with a singular verb conjugation ("is"). The second sentence emphasizes the individuality of disagreeing team members; thus, the team is a collection of individuals who have a plural conjugation ("are").
Also be aware that some nouns in the English language can be singular even though they end with an "-s." This affects the verb conjugation when achieving subject–verb agreement:
"The United States is home to the FBI."
Here, the United States [of America] is understood as one geopolitical unit; thus, it takes a singular verb conjugation ("is"). However, under certain circumstances, terms such as "The United States" can be plural, as explained in the next subsection.
Plural Subjects, Compound Subjects, and Compound Predicates
Sometimes the subject of a sentence is not singular:
"The United States are not so united when it comes to gray areas in FBI jurisdiction."
Unlike our last example from the previous subsection, the subject of the main clause here is plural because the sentence emphasizes distinctions among the constituent states within the United States. Thus, the verb is plural as well ("are").
"The seamstress and her fellow inhabitant were shut-ins, apparently."
Here, the conjunction "and" links the singular "seamstress" and singular "inhabitant" to form a plural subject, requiring a plural verb conjugation ("were").
Also note that phrases such as "along with," "together with," and "as well as" are not conjunctions. Compare the following sentences for subject–verb agreement:
"Plum Island as well as Anthrax Island sound fictional."
"Plum Island as well as Anthrax Island sounds fictional."
"Plum Island and Anthrax Island sound fictional."
The first example is incorrect because the phrase "as well as Anthrax Island" is actually additional information. The second sentence is consequently correct because the singular verb ("sounds") matches the singular noun ("Plum Island"), bypassing the additional information ("as well as Anthrax Island").
Nevertheless, given that the second sentence sounds stilted, the third sentence demonstrates that a simple switch from the phrase "as well as" to the conjunction "and" is best, though now it requires a plural verb ("sound") because both islands are the compound subject, properly equated with a conjunction.
Furthermore, subject–verb agreement rules can depend on the verb's proximity to an element within a compound subject, as with the comparative structures of "either/or" and "neither/nor." This is evident in the following examples:
"Neither the director nor his trainees were ready to solve the puzzle."
"Neither the trainees nor their director was ready to solve the puzzle."
In both sentences, the subjects are the director and the trainees. However, in the first example, the plural noun "trainees" is closer to the verb; thus, the verb has a plural conjugation ("were"). In the second example, the singular noun "director" is closer to the verb; thus, the verb has a singular conjugation ("was").
The same rule applies to pronoun usage in comparative structures, as evident in the following examples:
"Neither she nor I am aware that the pattern is desperately random."
"Neither they nor she is aware that the pattern is desperately random."
In both examples, the subject closest to the verb dictates the verb's conjugation: "I am" and "she is."
"She goes to the storage unit where the flutist and his friend once were and finds that the door will not quite open."
In this, our longest example, "she" is the subject, but there are multiple verbs: "goes," "were," "finds," and "will […] open." The only way to sort out these verbs is to ask who is doing what. The flutist and his friend were previously at the storage unit, so "were" is their action (conjugated to match their plural status).
Likewise, the door will not quite open, so "open" is the door's action, even though "she" is the one trying to open it. That leaves two verbs: "she" is the one who "goes" to the storage unit, and "she" is the one who "finds" that the door will not quite open. Therefore, "goes" and "finds" are her actions, and both are conjugated in the matching third-person singular form: "She goes […] and finds […]."
The next subsection addresses other tricky conditions for subject–verb agreement rules.
Indefinite Subjects and Contexts
Concord rules in English can be trickier when dealing with indefinite subjects and contexts:
"Each of the orderlies is on guard."
Here, the phrase "of the orderlies" is additional information, meaning that "Each" is the subject. Furthermore, because "each" means "each one," the subject is limited to any one member of the group of "orderlies." The sentence requires the singular verb conjugation ("is").
Let's compare that condition with the following sentence:
"Pilcher is one of those people who like an amusing house wine."
Here, the relative pronoun "who" is the subject of the verb "to like," but the information before that pronoun explains if "who" is singular or plural. Pilcher is a single person, but he is placed within a larger group ("those people"), meaning that the verb after "who" takes a plural conjugation ("like"). If Pilcher were the only person in the group to like an amusing house wine, the sentence would be as follows:
"Pilcher is the only one among those people who likes an amusing house wine."
Here, Pilcher's singularity is emphasized as "who," requiring a verb conjugation in the singular ("likes").
Other indefinite subjects can be singular or plural. Compare the following examples:
"Some liver in your diet is an excellent source of iron."
"Some dogs are precious to me."
In both cases, the word "some" indicates a subset of all possibilities (some but not all servings of liver, some but not all dogs). Nevertheless, the verb in the first sentence is singular, and the verb in the second sentence is plural. This is because "liver" is a non-count noun when referenced as a meat product, as opposed to the countable bodily organ:
"Two livers are potential donations from residents at this address, according to the census."
The noun "dogs," on the other hand, is countable; it refers to multiple canines in a group, even if we do not know the exact number of dogs in that group. Thus, "liver" as a meat product is singular, and "dogs" is plural.
Finally, the subject of a sentence can occur after the verb:
"Is there a half-finished garment in the closet?"
"Are there five half-finished garments in the closet?"
In both cases, the verb is the first word in the sentence, but "there" is not the subject because it actually designates the location where the subject's action takes place. To demonstrate this, we could easily rearrange the sentences from an interrogative to an indicative format.
"A half-finished garment is there in the closet."
Thus, the subject in the first sentence is "garment," and the subject in the second sentence is "garments," meaning that the first sentence uses the singular "is," and the second sentence uses the plural "are."
As you can see, there are multiple subject–verb agreement rules. However, the underlying principle for subject–verb agreement remains the same: conjugate the verb(s) to match the subject(s). The challenge is to learn how to separate subjects and their verbs from the other nouns, pronouns, and verbs (not to mention the other parts of speech) that can appear in complex sentences.
Through the examples provided in this article, we offer you a clew of thread to help you navigate the amazing complexities of the English language. However amazing, though, the language is still complex. If you find yourself struggling through the ample examples and explanations, fear not! Scribendi is here to make sure your writing is flawless, should you want to send it in to the professionals and make sure it is completely error free.
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