Subjects and verbs must agree with each other in number for a sentence to make sense. Even though grammar can be a bit quirky from time to time, there are 20 rules of subject-verb agreement that sum up the topic quite concisely. Most of the concepts of subject-verb agreement are straightforward, but exceptions to the rules can make it more complicated.
For example, would you say, "They are fun" or "They is fun"? Since "they" is plural, you'd opt for the plural form of the verb, "are". Ready to dive into a world where subjects and verbs live in harmony?
Twenty may seem like a lot of rules for one subject, but you'll quickly notice one ties into the next. In the end, it'll all make sense. (In the following examples, the agreeing subject is in bold and the verb is in italics.)
The dog growls when he is angry.
The dogs growl when they are angry.
2. Subordinate clauses that come between the subject and verb don't affect their agreement.
The dog, who is chewing on my jeans, is usually very good.
3. Prepositional phrases between the subject and verb usually do not affect agreement.
The colors of the rainbow are beautiful.
4. When sentences start with "there" or "here," the subject will always be placed after the verb. Some care needs to be taken to identify each part correctly.
There is a problem with the balance sheet.
Here are the papers you requested.
5. Subjects don't always come before verbs in questions. Make sure you accurately identify the subject before deciding on the proper verb form to use.
Where are the pieces of this puzzle?
6. If two subjects are joined by "and," they typically require a plural verb form.
The cow and the pig are jumping over the moon.
7. The verb is singular if the two subjects separated by "and" refer to the same person or thing as a whole.
Red beans and rice is my mom's favorite dish.
8. If one of the words "each," "every," or "no" comes before the subject, the verb is singular.
No smoking or drinking is allowed.
Every man and woman is required to check in.
9. If the subjects are both singular and are connected by the words "or," "nor," "neither/nor," "either/or," or "not only/but also," the verb is singular.
Either Jessica or Christian is to blame for the accident.
10. The only time the object of the preposition decides plural or singular verb forms is when noun and pronoun subjects like "some," "half," "none," "more," or "all" are followed by a prepositional phrase. Then the object of the preposition determines the form of the verb.
All of the chicken is gone.
All of the chickens are gone.
11. The singular verb form is usually reserved for units of measurement or time.
Four quarts of oil was required to get the car running.
12. If the subjects are both plural and are connected by the words "or," "nor," "neither/nor," "either/or," or "not only/but also," the verb is plural.
Not only dogs but also cats are available at the animal shelter.
13. If one subject is singular and the other is plural, and the words are connected by the words "or," "nor," "neither/nor," "either/or," or "not only/but also," use the verb form of the subject that is nearest the verb.
Either the bears or the lion has escaped from the zoo.
Neither the lion nor the bears have escaped from the zoo.
14. Indefinite pronouns typically take singular verbs (with some exceptions).
Everybody wants to be loved.
15. The exceptions to the above rule include the pronouns "few," "many," "several," "both," "all," and "some." These always take the plural form.
Few were left alive after the flood.
16. If two infinitives are separated by "and," they take the plural form of the verb.
To walk and to chew gum require great skill.
17. When gerunds are used as the subject of a sentence, they take the singular form of the verb. However, when they are linked by "and," they take the plural form.
Standing in the water was a bad idea.
Swimming in the ocean and playing drums are my hobbies.
18. A collective noun, such as "team" or "staff," can be either singular or plural depending upon the rest of the sentence. Typically, they take the singular form, as the collective noun is treated as a cohesive single unit.
The herd is stampeding.
19. Titles of books, movies, novels, and other similar works are treated as singular and take a singular verb.
The Burbs is a movie starring Tom Hanks.
20. Final rule: Remember, only the subject affects the verb! Nothing else matters.
Jacob, who owns sixteen houses, is on his way to becoming a billionaire.
To see more sentences showing the correct agreement of subject and verb, check out Examples of Subject-Verb Agreement. You can also download our shorter top 10 rules infographic and keep it handy.
What would a grammar lesson be without a few exceptions to the rule? Let's review some of the most notable exceptions:
"Anyone," "everyone," "someone," "no one," and "nobody" always require singular verbs.
"Neither" and "either" require singular verbs even though they seem to be referring to two separate things.
When a sentence compounds a positive and a negative subject and only one is plural, the verb should agree with the positive subject.
Words that indicate portions of a whole, such as "percent," "fraction," "some," "none," and "remainder" require a singular verb only if the object of the preposition is singular.
"Who," "that," and "which" can be singular or plural, according to the noun directly in front of them.
The phrase introduced by "as well as" or "along with" modifies the earlier word, but doesn't compound the subjects.
Modifiers between the subject and verb do not affect whether the verb is singular or plural.
Just because a word ends in -s doesn't automatically make it plural.
The problem with grammar rules, from the perspective of modern linguistics, is that many of the rules aren't absolute. There are a wealth of exceptions to rules, as we can see here. It can prove helpful to bookmark condensed lists of rules like this.
Truthfully, the best way to keep your grammar on point is to read, read, and then read some more! In the meantime, have fun with these five tips to improve your grammar further.