Rules of Subject-Verb Agreement

Summary

Whether you use the singular or plural form of a verb depends on the subject of the sentence. Here are the rules of subject-verb agreement.

1. Ignore anything that separates subject from verb.

Example
  • The cat, along with the dogs, has/have eaten up all the cake.

2. Subjects joined by and are plural.

Example
  • The cat and the dogs has/have eaten up all the cake.

3. With subjects joined by or or nor, the verb should agree with the subject closest to it.

Examples
  • Either the cat or the dogs has/have eaten up the cake.
  • Neither the dogs nor the cat is/are responsible for the cake’s disappearance.

4. When here or there begins a sentence, the verb must agree with the real subject.

Examples
  • Here is/are the cakes you ordered.
  • There is/are three cakes on the table.

5. In questions, the verb must agree with the subject that appears after it.

Example
  • Where is/are the cakes I ordered?

6. Some indefinite pronouns are always singular. Others may be singular or plural, depending on meaning.

Examples
  • Everyone is/are here.
  • None of them is/are here.

7. Collective nouns may be singular or plural, depending on meaning and preference.

Example
  • The government has/have ordered a complete lockdown.

8. Some subjects may appear plural but be singular.

Example
  • The news is/are always depressing.

9. A singular subject with a plural complement is still singular.

Example
  • Maya’s favorite snack is/are fries without ketchup.

What is subject-verb agreement?

The verb used in a sentence must agree with the subject. This means that the verb should match the subject in person and number. Use a singular verb with a singular subject and a plural verb with a plural subject. Which verb you use also depends on whether the subject is in the first, second, or third person.

Examples
  • I like/likes tea.
  • You like/likes coffee.
  • She like/likes carrot juice.
  • They like/likes tea and coffee but not carrot juice.

The verb like changes form depending on the subject of the sentence: I like, but she likes. In this way, the verb agrees with the subject.

Verb separated from subject

Ignore anything that separates subject from verb: a phrase or a clause that appears between the subject and the verb of a sentence does not affect number. This means that the verb stays singular or plural, depending on whether the subject is singular or plural, regardless of what comes between the two.

Examples
  • A rose without thorns is/are still a rose.
    The subject “a rose” is followed by the prepositional phrase “without thorns.” Although the noun “thorns” is plural, the verb stays singular because the subject is singular.
  • The students who attended the lecture is/are eligible to appear for the exam.
    The subject (“the students”) is plural, so the verb stays plural.
  • The employee who made the most sales in the two quarters is/are going to be rewarded.
Caution

Long sentences can be tricky. When the verb is far away from the subject in a sentence, it’s easy to get agreement wrong. Make sure to correctly identify the subject of the verb. Ignore all modifiers that separate the two.

Example
  • The astronaut, along with other crew members, is/are signing autographs today at the space center.

Subjects joined by and

A compound subject in which two or more subjects are joined by and is usually plural.

Examples
  • Two dogs and a cat is/are on the couch.
  • Lulu’s friends and she has/have bought tickets to the concert.
  • The bus and the train is/are both good choices.
Caution

Sometimes, two nouns are joined by and but mean a single thing. Use a singular verb with such a subject.

Example
  • Eggs and bread is/are all we serve for breakfast.
    Since “eggs and bread” comprise one dish, prefer the singular verb.

Subjects joined by or or nor

When two subjects are joined by or or nor to share a single verb in a sentence, the verb used should agree with the subject closest to it.

Examples
  • Either the cat or the dogs has/have to see the vet today.
  • Either the dogs or the cat has/have to see the vet today.
  • Neither the manager nor the analysts knows/know what to do.
  • Neither the analysts nor the manager knows/know what to do.

Again, remember to ignore any modifiers that separate subject from verb.

Example
  • If the sequence or number of list elements is/are unimportant, use bullets; otherwise, use numbers.
Tip

Subject-verb agreement can sometimes make a sentence sound awkward. Try putting the plural subject closest to the verb.

Example
  • Awkward: Either her parents or her teacher needs to step up.
    If this sounds awkward, rephrase.
    Better: Either her teacher or her parents need to step up.

For more usage examples, see this article on whether compound subjects are singular or plural.

There as dummy subject

There is often used as a dummy subject, with the real subject appearing later in the sentence. The verb used must agree with the real subject, not with the word there.

Examples
  • There is/are three giraffes in the garden.
    The verb should agree with the real subject of the sentence: “three giraffes,” not “there.”
  • There is/are a cat on the mat.
  • There is/are some people waiting to meet you.
Tip

In informal usage, the contraction there’s may be used with both singular and plural subjects. Avoid such usage in formal writing.

Examples
  • Informal: There’s two ways to do this.
  • Formal: There are two ways to do this.

Here in subject position

The word here is used to introduce someone or something in a sentence. The verb used depends on whether the subject that follows is singular or plural.

Examples
  • Here is/are your medicine. Drink up!
  • Here is/are my spectacles.
  • Here is/are the fries you ordered.
  • Here is/are some money for your trip.

Inverted word order in questions

In questions, word order is changed, and the verb must agree with the inverted subject that follows it.

Examples
  • What is/are your mother’s name?
  • What is/are your parents’ names?
  • Where is/are the ice-cream?
  • Where is/are the ice-cream and the fries?
    This question has a compound subject, which contains two subjects joined by and. Consider it to be plural, although in informal usage, the contraction “where’s” may be used in such a question.

Indefinite pronouns

Some indefinite pronouns are always singular: everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, no one, nobody, someone, somebody.

Examples
  • Everyone is/are coming to the party.
  • Someone has/have left their bag on the train.
  • Is/are anybody listening?
  • There is/are no one here.

Other indefinite pronouns, like some and all may be singular or plural depending on what they refer to.

Examples
  • All are welcome.
  • All is not lost.
  • Some of us were invited to the launch.
  • Some of the food has gone bad.
Tip

None may be singular or plural, depending on whether you mean “not one” or “no part of,” or “not any.”

Examples
  • None of this is true.
    no part of this
  • None of us is right.
    not one of us
  • None of us are wrong.
    not any of us

Either and neither are considered singular in formal usage but are used informally as both singular and plural, depending on meaning.

Examples
  • Formal: Does/do either of you have a car?
    Informal: Does/do either of you have a car?
  • Formal: Neither of us has/have a car.
    Informal: Neither of us has/have a car.

Collective nouns

Collective nouns like team, staff, and committee may be treated as singular or plural, depending on meaning. If you want to refer to the group as a single unit, use a singular verb. To speak of the individuals in the group, use a plural noun.

Examples
  • The staff needs a new cafeteria.
    referring to the group as a whole
    or
    The staff say they need a new cafeteria.
    referring to the individuals in the group.
  • The team is on a winning streak this season.
    or
    The team are practicing their batting and pitching this week.
  • The committee has reached a decision.
    or
    The committee are discussing the findings of the investigation.
Tip

Collective nouns like family and government are generally considered singular in American English and plural in British.

Example
  • American: The government is enacting a new law to allow pelicans to drive.
    British: The government are proposing a ban on gatherings of more than four people.

For more examples and discussion, see this article on whether collective nouns should be considered singular or plural.

Singular nouns with plural forms

Some nouns have plural forms but are singular. These include names of subjects, diseases, fields of study, branches of medicine, and games, among other words.

Examples
  • Measles is/are a contagious disease that children can be vaccinated against.
  • Mathematics was/were Tumkin’s favorite subject in school.
  • Politics is/are a subject that has never interested him.
  • Orthopedics is/are offered as a specialty to interns.
  • Aerobics is/are a good form of exercise.
  • The news is/are good.
Tip

Nouns that sound plural but are actually singular include economics, physics, aeronautics, genetics, obstetrics, anesthetics, mumps, shingles, herpes, rabies, rickets, diabetes, billiards, checkers, darts, and gymnastics.

Singular subject with plural complement

The subject, not its complement, determines whether the verb used is singular or plural. If the subject is singular but its complement is plural, still use a singular verb.

Examples
  • Lulu’s favorite thing in the world is/are marshmallows.
    Although the complement (“marshmallows”) is plural, the subject (“Lulu’s favorite thing”) is singular. Use a singular verb like “is,” not “are.”
  • Marshmallows is/are Lulu’s favorite thing in the world.
    Now that the subject is plural, we can use the plural verb “are.”
  • The perfect gift for him is/are not a car but these three books.
  • These three books and not a car is/are the perfect gift for him.

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Did You Know?

A list need not always be numbered.
Know more:Lists: Bullets, Numbers, Capitalization, Punctuation