Of all the sticky wickets of grammar, agreement may be one of the trickiest. In English, subjects and verbs must “agree” with each other in number. This means that singular subjects must be paired with the singular form of the verb, and plural subjects must be paired with the plural form of the verb. Though errors in agreement won’t often impede understanding, they simply sound wrong to native speakers and make you seem less competent.
Teaching subject-verb agreement to your students often comes naturally, as they pick up these nuances just by hearing English spoken. However, ESL students may struggle with what feel like arbitrary rules at first, and even native English speakers have trouble getting agreement right in more complex sentences.
Basic Subject-Verb Agreement in Present Tense
The rules of agreement always start with the subject of your sentence — usually a noun or pronoun. For example:
The dog eats meat.
In this sentence, the subject is “dog,” and there’s only one. This is a singular subject, and it needs the singular form of the verb “eats.” In most cases, the singular verb in present tense takes an -s suffix.
The dogs eat meat.
Once you make the subject plural, however, the verb must change to be plural as well. Here the plural verb drops the -s suffix to agree with the plural subject (several dogs). For native speakers, this is nearly always automatic.
Agreement in Questions
Remember that in questions, the subject and verb order are often reversed. For example:
Where is my shoe?
Here the subject is “shoe” and the verb is “is.” These are both singular and still agree, even though the word order has changed. You can check your work by turning it into a declarative sentence to see if it is correct: “My shoe is there.”
Agreement With a More Complicated Subject
Sometimes the subject of sentence sounds like it’s singular, but it’s really plural. For example:
The cats, dog and hamster live together.
In this sentence, “dog” and “hamster” and singular while “cats” is plural. Which verb ending should you use? Because the animals form a group of more than one, the plural verb “live” required.
Likewise, a sometimes a subject sounds plural but really refers to just one thing. For example:
Physics is a difficult subject to master.
Even though “physics” sounds plural because of its -s suffix, it really refers to one subject here. It therefore requires the singular verb “is”.
Agreement in More Complex Sentences
As your students learn to write more complex sentences that include more descriptive information, what was once the easiest of grammar rules can get tricky. For example:
The dog that loves bones eats meat.
In this sentence, the clause “that loves bones” is wedged between the subject and the verb. This can sometimes make it harder to tell which verb to use. The rule is always that the verb must agree with the subject, not the word that comes right before the verb. In this case, the singular “dog” still needs the singular verb “eats” — don’t let the plural “bones” distract you. A good way to check your work is to mentally remove all the extra phrases or clauses and read the sentence again to check for agreement.
When teaching your students about the finer points of subject-verb agreement, it’s always helpful to have them read their work aloud. This allows them to hear mistakes that they might not notice just by skimming their writing. Agreement is an important grammar skill, so be sure to review it often.