How to Get Subjects and Verbs to Agree

It must be the romance of the colder seasons, but I’m in a dreamy mood today, so let’s take a look at today’s grammar dilemma, subject-verb agreement, through rose colored glasses. Subjects and verbs have a tenuous relationship. Like the Capulets and the Montegues, they quarrel constantly. For the sake of the sentences, let try to get them to cooperate.

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The easy to follow rule

Broken down into its simplest form, the rule to follow is plural subjects need plural verbs, singular subjects need singular verbs.

The Troublemakers

Like Shakespeare’s famously feuding families, Subjects and Verbs don’t always see eye to eye. Collective nouns and compound subjects have a tendency of muddling the Subjects side of things, and modifying phrases cause more disagreement by widening the rift between the Subjects and the Verbs. Where does that leave you? Grammatically heartbroken, that’s where. Let’s examine how to get those two groups cooperating so that your writing doesn’t leave your reader as despondent as the ending to Shakespeare’s play does.

Collective Nouns

A collective noun is the name of a number (or collection) of people or things taken together and spoken of as one whole. Family is a collective noun; it conveys a plural meaning, but it’s used in conjunction with a singular verb because it refers to a single unit of people.

The family is livid.

This is almost always the case. No, I don’t mean the upset family. I was referring to the use of a singular verb with a collective noun. However, when the speaker is indicating the individual members of the group, a plural verb may be used. This usage is much more common in British English than it is in American English.

The family are fighting amongst themselves.

romeo and juliet sword fight

Compound Subjects Can Compound the Confusion

A compound subject occurs when two or more noun phrases are coordinated to form a single noun phrase. If the subjects are joined by the word and, they are considered plural.

Romeo and Juliet are very much in love.

If subjects are joined by or or nor, the verb should agree with the closer subject.

Either the family or the lovers are at fault for the quarrel.

Either the lovers or the family is at fault for the quarrel.

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Modifying Phrases

Most of the above is second nature to most native English speakers and, with the exception of being distracted mid-sentence, shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The true mischief-makers are modifying phrases like those starting with a relative pronoun (e.g., that, who, and which), a gerund (a noun formed from a verb by adding –ing), or prepositions (e.g., of, as, and with) that modify the meaning of the noun or subject under discussion. Basically, the further away the subject and verb are from each other, the easier it is to make a mistake. Don’t let these phrases withhold the message from one to the other, it can only end in a subject-verb double suicide, and no one wants that.

The Friar, whom Juliet asks for help, offers her a drug to induce a death-like coma.

Unfortunately, the messenger delivering Juliet’s words does not reach Romeo.

Juliet, with dangerous intentions, takes Romeo’s dagger.

Well, would you look at that. We made the Subjects and the Verbs get along and things still ended on a tragic note. Let’s try this:

The use of daggers and poisons was prohibited in Verona. Romeo and Juliet, against all odds, lived happily ever after.

Ah, that’s much more fitting of my mood, if wildly inaccurate.


Do you find yourself dealing with subject-verb disagreements? Tell us you tale of inter-sentence feuding.