Subject-Verb Agreement

Bonnie Mills helps writers get over disagreement-itis by explaining why singulars and plurals don't mix.

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #459

Now that you’re awake we can examine another reason you might be giving your readers an ulcer. The problem we’re dealing with here is stuff—and, mind you, “stuff” is a real medical term. This sneaky stuff distracts you into using the wrong verb. The troublemakers that come between your subject and verb include prepositional phrases (such as “in the operating room”) and that, who or which clauses. Let’s look back at our friend the hospital sign that read "The use of cell phones and pagers are prohibited." The prepositional phrase “of cell phones and pagers” is in the way. The subject of that sentence is use, which is singular, so the verb should be is. And that is that.

Subject-Verb Agreement Checkups

Have you been forgetting to get regular agreement checkups like our errant sign writers? I guess I’ll forgive you—if you promise to perform a mistake-ectomy immediately. It’s actually quite easy. Simply find your subject and circle just the word (or words) that form the subject—and ignore everything else. Then, underline the verb and check if subject and verb match. If they don’t, berate yourself for a few minutes and then fix the problem. Take this sentence: “Doctor Doofus, who needs a new phone message, and Nurse Nincompoop, his fiancée, are eloping tonight.” The subject is… what? Ah, yes, circle both Doctor Doofus and Nurse Nincompoopthe plural subjects. Forget about the erroneous phone message and the lucky fiancée. Next, underline are eloping. It’s a match! Plural subjectsplural verb.The wedding can commence, and no one will have a heart attack.

All these circles and underlines might seem tedious, but please mark up your pages until your subject-verb inflammatory disease is cured. Both you and your readers will feel much better if you examine your work thoroughly and get rid of careless errors. My surgeon certainly was thorough; he triple-checked that he didn’t leave any surgical instruments in me. Thanks, Doc. Your patience and consideration are much appreciated! You probably don’t have to check your work three times—once should be sufficient; twice if you write hospital signs for a living.

I hope you enjoyed my mixing it up a bit by bringing Bonnie Trenga in as a writer. This piece originally appeared in Writer's Digest, and if you enjoyed it, you can find more of Bonnie's work at http://sentencesleuth.blogspot.com. And, as I said, she is also the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, where she takes a similarly fun approach to grammar.

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Hospital image, phalinn at Flickr, CC BY 2.0 



About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.

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