The English language is a beautiful thing. It can sound like a mountain stream tinkling over the rocks when it’s spoken or written correctly. But when a person uses incorrect grammar, it sounds like a donkey braying or a clanging cymbal. Correct use of subject-verb agreement rules can make the difference between tinkling and braying, but when do those rules not apply?
Instances where the subject-verb agreement does not apply are determined by specific words in the sentence rather than any new rules. One simply has to memorize the exceptions to the rules and their corresponding singular or plural verb forms if one doesn’t have a “good ear” for what sounds correct.
One would think that the basic subject-verb agreement rule would be simple. But this rule is rather like an onion – it has many layers and conditions and almost as many exceptions to the rules. Let’s peel back the layers.
In What Instances Does Subject-Verb Agreement Not Apply?
The best way to understand the instances where the subject-verb agreement does not apply is to list the rules with examples before pointing out the exceptions. Let’s look at those rules.
Subject-Verb Rules And Their Exceptions
The basic subject-verb agreement rule states that a singular subject should pair with a singular verb, and a plural subject should take a plural verb. Examples of this would be:
The bag of tricks is on the chair.
“Bag” is the singular subject and requires the singular verb “is.”
Instances where the basic rule does not apply would be:
- The first person pronoun is paired with a plural verb (I jump, I sing).
- The primary verb form is used after other main verbs such as “watch,” “see,” “feel,” “ help,” “let,” “make,” and “hear.” (He helps Jane clear the table.)
Exceptions To Agreement Rules In The Simple Past Tense
The subject-verb agreement rules do not apply when a sentence is written in the simple past tense and do not include any helping verbs. The verb does not change its form when the subject changes from singular to plural.
The man (singular) talked to her.
The men (plural) talked to her.
Subject-Verb Rules With Helping Verbs
The agreement rule is valid when the words “has” and “have” are used as single helping verbs. The same applies to the first of two helping verbs.
Examples with a single helping verb:
The man has talked to her.
The men have talked to her.
Examples with a pair of helping verbs:
The man has been talking to her.
The men have been talking to her.
The subject-verb agreement rules do not apply when the words “has”and “have”are used as the second of two helping verbs.
The man could have talked to her.
The men could have talked to her.
The subject-verb agreement rules do not come into play when using any other helping verbs, such as “shall,” “should,” “will,” “would,” “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” and “must.”
The man could talk to her.
The men could talk to her.
Agreement Rules And Personal Pronouns
Except for ” I ” and ” you, ” all personal pronouns are bound by the subject-verb agreement rules except for “I” and “you.” Although these are are both singular pronouns, they require plural verbs.
She (singular) talks to the man.
We (plural) talk to the man.
I (singular) talk to the man.
You (singular) talk to the man.
Subject-Verb Agreement With Two Or More Subjects
The rule when there is more than one subject in a sentence is to use a plural verb when they are linked by “and.”
A dog attacks the bird. A cat attacks the bird. When joined into one sentence, we use a plural verb:
A dog and a cat attack the bird.
An exception to this rule would be when two words make up a compound noun and are connected by “and.” Although they are two words, they form one concept and take a singular verb:
Spaghetti and meatballs is on the menu.
The bed and breakfast was expensive.
If one section of the compound subject is singular and the other is plural, the rules are twofold.
The monkey (singular) wants the fruit.
The elephants (plural) want the fruit.
If you join the two sentences with “and,” the verb will always be in the plural form.
If you join the sentences with “or” or “nor,” the verb must agree with the subject closer to the verb. Example:
The monkey and the elephants want the fruit.
The monkey or the elephants want the fruit.
Agreement Rules For Plural Nouns With Singular Meaning
Specific nouns end in s and are plural forms but have singular meanings, such as measles or mumps. Although they seem plural, they only refer to one concept consisting of smaller parts. We consider these words singular and give them singular verbs.
Mumps lasts about two weeks.
Indefinite Pronouns And Subject-Verb Agreement
Some indefinite pronouns may sound plural but are, in fact, singular, and therefore they require singular verbs. These words always take a singular verb:
- Anybody or anyone
- Everybody or everyone
- Nobody or no one
- Anything, something, everything, or nothing.
These indefinite pronouns always need plural verbs:
There are a few indefinite pronouns whose verb forms can be singular or plural depending on their meanings in the sentence:
Most of the debt has been paid off.
Most of the debts are outstanding.
A Few More Exceptions To The Agreement Rule
Here are a few more exceptions to the subject-verb agreement rules.
- “Either” and “neither” sound like they refer to two things, but they always have a singular verb.
- Words that refer to parts of a whole take singular verbs, e.g., percent, fraction, remainder.
- “Which,” “that,” and “who” can take singular or plural verbs depending on the noun that is in front of them.
- Modifiers between the subject and verb don’t decide whether a verb is singular or plural.
- A word ending on an s is not always plural.
How to teach Subject Verb Aggreement?
There is a fair bit to this, and to cover it in more detail with activities and games etc we have written the article below for you .Feel free to use those ideas.
As beautiful as it may be, the English language has complicated and inconsistent grammar rules. The subject-verb agreement demands that singular nouns be paired with singular verbs and that the same applies to plural nouns. However, compound nouns, pronouns, collective nouns, and every other part of speech seem to be able to turn those rules upside down! Good luck, English students!