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Subject-Verb Agreement

Every complete sentence contains two parts: a subject and a predicate (or verb). The subject is what (or whom) the sentence is about. The verb tells something about the subject or expresses an action. 

Subjects and verbs are like married couples—they must agree with each other, or the relationship breaks down.  Specifically, a verb must agree in person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular or plural) with the noun or pronoun that is its subject. Most errors people make have to do with number.

1. Don't be tricked by intervening phrases that contain nouns:

  • A diet of acidic fruit juices and spicy foods have no effect on him.
  • A diet of acidic fruit juices and spicy foods has no effect on him.
  • Neither of the twins were willing to volunteer.
  • Neither of the twins was willing to volunteer.

2. There are conventions around agreement with compound subjects:

A compound subject is made up of two (or more) nouns and/or pronouns. The parts of a compound subject are joined by a co-ordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, either … or, neither … nor, not … but, not only … but also, whether … or).

  • When subjects are joined by or, nor, either . . . or, neither . . . nor, not . . . but, not only . . . but also, whether . . . or, the part of the subject nearest to the verb determines whether the verb is singular or plural:
sing. + sing. sing. verb Joan or Li Fai has the consent form.
plural + plural plural verb Neither the doctors nor the nurses are at the clinic today.
plural + sing. sing.verb The hospitals or the agency issues updates. awkward
sing. + plural plural verb The agency or the hospitals issue updates. more common
  • And creates a plural compound subject which takes a plural verb:
  • There are insulin and vaccines in the refrigerator.

Again, don’t let yourself be fooled by intervening phrases:

  • The height, weight and age of the infant was recorded.
  • The height, weight and age of the infant were recorded.

Another important caution:  Phrases such as as well as, in addition to, together with, and along with are NOT conjunctions like and. They are prepositions. A singular subject followed by one of them still takes a singular verb:

  • The visiting nurse as well as the agency were unaware of the schedule.
  • The visiting nurse, as well as the agency, was unaware of the schedule.
  • Both the visiting nurse and the agency were unaware of the schedule.

3. Collective nouns are a special case:

Some nouns, called collectives, (e.g., series, set, staff, pair, faculty, orchestra) refer either to several individuals or to a single unit. Collective nouns can be either singular or plural, depending on what you want to emphasize—the individual members of the group or the group as a whole:

  • The staff were divided in their opinions. (every member has her or his own opinion)
  • The staff was responsible for producing a report. (the staff functions as a single entity to produce the report)

4. Nouns of foreign origin do not have standard English endings for singular and plural.  Note that APA Style does not use conventional plurals for nouns ending in –x:

Singular Plural Examples
criterion criteria Only one criterion was established for subject inclusion. 
Six criteria were established for subject exclusion.
phenomenon phenomena The phenomenon of HIV/AIDS has changed health care.
Phenomena of interest include HIV/AIDS and reducing infection rates
datum data RARE Not one datum supports this conclusion.
  • The data are insufficient to support this conclusion.
  • The data is insufficient to support this conclusion
medium media The gel medium is ready for the electrophoresis machine. 
The media influence body image among pre-teen girls.
appendix appendices Appendix A contains our interview questions.
Five appendices of raw data are attached.
Five appendixes are attached.
index indices This book’s index is a source of additional topics.
All indices show that crime rates are down this year.
All indexes show that crime rates are down.

Noun-Pronoun Agreement

A pronoun (Latin pro = for + noun) is a word that refers to or stands in for an antecedent (i.e., a noun that appeared earlier).

Pronouns must agree with the noun they replace in number (singular, plural), person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and gender (masculine, feminine, neuter). Most errors people make have to do with number.

  • The students want to skip the exam.  They found the course useless.

1. When two or more antecedents are joined by and, we use a plural pronoun:

  • The case manager and the social worker compared their notes.

unless this compound antecedent is preceded by each or every:

  • Each unit and department reports to its case manager.

2. When two or more antecedents are mixed singular and plural, the pronoun should agree with the antecedent nearest it:

  • Neither the students nor the nurse could hear herself.

This is correct but awkward, and most native English speakers would choose this option:

  • Neither the nurse nor the students could hear themselves.

3. The pronoun none means no one or not one and has traditionally been treated as singular:

  • None of the boys lost their temper.
  • None of the boys lost his temper.

The same convention applies to any of the "one" pronouns: everyone, someone, anyone.

  • Everyone has the same problem with that supervisor.

4.Pronouns must be used consistently:

  • If one wants to pass the course, they have to write the exam.
  • If they want to pass the course, they have to write the exam.
  • If he or she wants to pass the course, he or she has to write the exam.

Tip:‘He or she’ becomes very awkward if it appears often in your paper. Avoid it this way:

  • change to plural:  If they want to pass the course…
  • use all masculine pronouns in one paragraph; switch to all feminine in the next
  • reword without a pronoun:  To pass the course, students must write the exam.

©2007, Dena Bain Taylor, PhD, University of Toronto
Toronto, Canada. All rights reserved