Sentence Agreement: Introduction


Here you learn how to match subjects and verbs, pronouns and antecedents, and maybe even a few outfits. You find out how agreement works with collective nouns and indefinite pronouns, too. Agreement is a biggie, because it occurs at least once a sentence.

Anyone Got a Match?

Agreement means that sentence parts match. Subjects must agree with verbs and pronouns must agree with antecedents. Otherwise, your sentences will sound awkward and jarring, like yellow teeth with a red tie.

The basic rule of sentence agreement is really quite simple:

A subject must agree with its verb in number. (Number means amount. The number can be singular—one—or plural—more than one.) Here's how it works.

Singular Subjects and Verbs

You Could Look It Up

Agreement means that sentence parts match. Subjects must agree with verbs, and pronouns must agree with antecedents. Singular subjects need singular verbs; plural subjects need plural verbs.

In grammar, number refers to the two forms of a word: singular (one) or plural (more than one).

The following guidelines make it easy to match singular subjects and verbs.

  1. A singular subject takes a singular verb. For example:
    • He who hesitates is probably right.
    • The singular subject he agrees with the singular verb is.
    • Isaac Asimov was the only author to have a book in every Dewey Decimal System category.
    • The singular subject Isaac Asimov requires the singular verb was.
  2. Plural subjects that function as a single unit take a singular verb. For instance:
    • Spaghetti and meatballs is my favorite dish.
    • The singular subject spaghetti and meatballs agrees with the singular verb is.
    • Ham and eggs was the breakfast of champions in the 1950s.
    • The singular subject ham and eggs agrees with the singular verb was.
  3. Titles are always singular. It doesn't matter how long the title is, what it names, or whether or not it sounds plural. As a result, a title always takes a singular verb. Here are two examples:
    • Moby Dick was a whale of a tale.
    • The singular title Moby Dick agrees with the singular verb was.
    • The Valachi Papers is a good read.
    • The singular title The Valachi Papers agrees with the singular verb is—even though the title appears plural, it is singular. That's because all titles are singular.
  4. Singular subjects connected by either/or, neither/nor, and not only/but also require a singular verb. That's because the connecting words show that you are choosing only one item.
    • Either the witness or the defendant was lying.
    • Only one person is lying: the witness or the defendant. Therefore, the subject is singular. And the singular subject (the witness or the defendant) matches the singular verb (was).

Plural Subjects and Verbs

Matching plural subjects and verbs is a snap with these simple guidelines: Here's the #1 rule:

  1. A plural subject takes a plural verb.
    • The rejected New Mexico state motto: Lizards make excellent pets.
    • The plural subject lizards matches the plural verb make.
    • Mosquitoes are attracted to blue more than any other color.
    • The plural subject mosquitoes matches the plural verb are.
    • Think of the conjunction and as a plus sign. Whether the parts of the subject joined by and are singular or plural (or both), they all add up to a plural subject and so require a plural verb.
    • Anwar and Hosni going to the movies.
    • The plural subject Anwar and Hosni agrees with the plural verb are.
    • Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were great presidents.
    • The plural subject Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln agrees with the plural verb were.
  2. If the subject is made up of two or more nouns or pronouns connected by or, nor, not only, or but also, the verb agrees with the noun closest to the pronoun.
    • Neither the contract nor the page proofs are arriving in time to meet the deadline.
    • The plural subject proofs agrees with the plural verb are.
    • Neither the page proofs nor the contract is arriving in time to meet the deadline.
    • The singular subject contract agrees with the singular verb is.
  3. Ignore words or phrases that come between the subject and the verb. A phrase or clause that comes between a subject and its verb does not affect subject-verb agreement.
    • The purpose of working out for several hours is to get fit and buff.
    • The singular subject purpose matches the singular verb is. Ignore the intervening prepositional phrase “of working out for several hours.”
    • Downward mobility—a quick ride down the social and economic ladders—poses a serious problem.
    • The singular subject downward mobility agrees with the singular verb poses. Ignore the intervening appositive “a quick ride down the social and economic ladders.”

Seventh-Inning Stretch

Take a second to get these first few rules down pat. Circle the correct verb in each sentence. Feel free to look back at the rules you just read.

  1. A typical Radio City Music Hall Rockette (is/are) between 5 feet and 5 feet 9 inches tall.
  2. An apple or a pear (contains/contain) about 75 calories each.
  3. The supply of stupid drivers (increase/increases) during holidays.
  4. Residents of our country (spend/spends) more than $31 billion a year on fast food.
  5. Bill Cosby's cartoon characters (includes/include) Fat Albert and Weird Harold.
  6. In winter, camels (is/are) able to go without water for eight weeks.
  7. Contrary to popular thinking, camels (does/do) not store water in their humps.
  8. The average person (breathes/breathe) 7 quarts of air per minute.
  9. Camels also (urinates/urinate) very little, compared to other animals of roughly the same size.
  10. Every year the Washington Monument (sink/sinks) an average of 6 inches into the ground.
1. is6. are
2. contains7. do
3. increases8. breathes
4. spend9. urinate
5. include10. sinks
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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