English Speaking – Subject-verb agreement
Every sentence in English has a SUBJECT and a VERB.
Sometimes the subject is singular (e.g. the man/he) and sometimes it is plural (e.g. my friends/they).
Incorrect agreement between subject and the verb is one of the most common errors in speaking, as well as in writing. You must remember to change your verb, depending on if the subject is singular or plural.
go shopping every day = The man goes shopping every day
Collective nouns in English Language refer to a group (or a ‘collection’) of people, but they usually take a singular verb.
Examples of collective nouns:
government | team | party | firm | company | committee
When it refers to a group as an organisation we use a singular verb, but when the noun refers to the individuals in the group we prefer a plural verb…
- The current government is very unpopular (the group)
- The government are always arguing with each other (the individuals)
Simple subjects vs. Complex subjects
The subject of a verb can be a single noun or pronoun as in the examples below.
The government has decided to increase taxes.
Teachers work long hours. They have to do a lot of paperwork and planning after class.
However, many subjects comprise more than one noun and in these cases it can be difficult to decide whether the verb should be singular or plural. These subjects are known as complex subjects. When you have a complex subject, you need to decide which noun is the ‘head noun’ in other words the most important noun in the subject. The verb will agree with this noun.
A bag of sweets is not a healthy snack.
The subject of this sentence ‘a bag of sweets’ has two nouns. These are ‘bag’ and ‘sweets’. The important noun, however, is ‘bag’ (because ‘…of sweets’ is extra information). So, the verb is singular because there is only one ‘bag’!
Exercise 1. Look at the sentence below and answer the three questions…
Increased reliance on fossil fuels such as gas and coal has resulted in global warming.
- How many nouns can you find in the subject?
- Which noun is the most important?
- Is the main verb singular or plural?
Exercise 2. Answer the three questions for each of the four sentences…
- Driving while under the influence of drugs is extremely dangerous.
- People who smoke for a number of years are at much higher risk of getting cancer than non-smokers.
- More and more people of retirement age are choosing to continue working until well into their seventies.
- Children who come from a wealthy family usually do well at school.
For each sentence decide:
a) How many nouns can you find in the subject?
b) Which noun is the most important?
c) Is the main verb singular or plural?
Children under the age of ten are becoming increasingly addicted to television.
a) The head noun is ‘children’
b) The main verb is ‘are becoming’
c) It is plural
1. There are four nouns in the subject (reliance, fuels, gas and coal)
2. Reliance is the most important noun
3. ‘has resulted’ is the singular form
1. driving / is (singular)
2. people / are (plural)
3. people / are (plural)
4. children / do (plural)
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