One of the first things you learn in a traditional English lesson is subject-verb agreement. Subject verb agreement means the subject and verb must agree in number. This means both need to be singular or both need to be plural. Easy Right?
Then after a few tests or exercises in the classroom, mostly involving writing your answers on paper, you move on. Then when you practice speaking English you suddenly realise just how awful you sound to other listeners when you get this wrong. It turns out that subject verb assignments look simple on paper but can get more complicated quickly when you use them in English conversation.
Today we will go back to this often ignored part of your English language learning and make sense of its use and give you some real-world examples of this English grammar. You will practice listening to a native English speaker so you can prepare yourself and use it in your own English conversations.
Rather than list random sentences and ask you to fill in the blanks, like so many online exercises do. We will ignore the 80% of the things most people get right and focus on the 20% where language learners find it tricky and make mistakes.
Updated We have completed another English grammar lesson on subject verb agreement here.
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So sometimes I talk about a topic for interest and sometimes I give you help with your grammar and your English language learners’ common mistakes. So shall we go with some grammar today, but also for me to pick up on the difficulties which English Language students have and in line with ‘Rule Six of Adept English’, give you a helping hand with them? So let’s choose one of these difficulties and give you some practice. Even if you feel that you know how to do this point of grammar, keep listening because it gets more complicated towards the end. So today, let’s do some practice at ‘Subject-Verb Agreement’. This is something which English language learners often make mistakes with.
So first of all, what do I mean by ‘Subject Verb Agreement’? What about some examples?
- My father goes to a yoga class on Tuesdays.
- My cousins go to a yoga class on Tuesdays.
OK, so notice there the difference between the use of the verb ‘to go’ in the first example – so ‘my father goes’, G-O-E-S – and the use of the verb ‘to go’ in the second example ‘my cousins go’, G-O. So you’ll probably remember the simple grammar that you’ve learned here. It’s ‘goes’, in the first example because the subject, the person doing the action is ‘my father’ - and he is one person. And in the second example, it’s ‘go’, because the subject of the verb is ‘my cousins’ - and that’s plural, there are several people there. If you’re in any doubt about this, think about what pronouns you would use, if there was another bit of the sentence which referred back to the subject. So….
- My father goes to a yoga class on Tuesdays and he really enjoys it.
- My cousins go to a yoga class on Tuesdays and they really enjoy it.
So the pronoun which stands in place of my father is ‘he’ and the pronoun which stands in place of ‘my cousins’ is ‘they’. And you’ll notice the verb ‘to enjoy’ at the end of the sentence changes so that it agrees with the pronoun - ‘he enjoys’, ‘they enjoy’. Are you with me so far on Subject Verb Agreement? Hopefully you are. If you’re not, just start the podcast back at the beginning and listen again!
OK, so as languages go, or certainly European languages, how verbs change depending upon their subject is quite easy in English. How verbs change, depending upon their subject, who’s doing the action is called the ‘verb conjugation’. So I went, you went, he went, we went, they went. So in English it’s often quite simple – here ‘went’ doesn’t change, no matter who’s the subject. So usually the only part that’s different is the ‘he, she or it’ part of the verb – or the 3rd person singular as this is known. So (present tense ‘to go’) I go, she goes, I do, he does, I know, it knows. This is familiar to you, I’m sure. The only exception is the verb ‘to be’ So– I am, you are, he is, we are, they are. So the verb ‘to be’ is different in the first person singular ‘I am’, but that’s an easy exception to learn. You probably learnt that right at the beginning in one of your first English lessons. And of course the verb ‘to be’ and the verb ‘to have’ matter because they make their way into all sorts of English verb tenses. So ‘I am finding’, ‘he is finding’, ‘they are finding’ - for present continuous, for example. Or ‘I have found, he has found, they have found’ for the perfect tense. So these conjugations are quite easy to learn.
A photograph of a man holding a baby you cannot tell the gender of the baby. Used to help explain English grammar she, he and they.
So if you’re trying to ensure that you don’t make mistakes around subject verb agreement, then usually it’s this 3rd person singular, the ‘he, she or it’ part that gives trouble because it’s different But there are some more places where this confusion occurs. This is about to get more complicated – so stick with me! Here are some rules to help you avoid the common mistakes that English language learners make around subject verb agreement. And there are seven of them, so let’s call this ‘The Seven Common Mistakes which English Language Learners Make Around Subject Verb Agreement’!
- Where there is an ‘of’ in the subject. So for example….
- The list of names has been put online.
- The box of flowers was on a tray.
- The bunch of grapes had disappeared.
- The cups of tea were very much appreciated.
So notice in the first three that the verb agrees with the singular noun before the of, not the plural noun after the ‘of’. The list has been put online, the box was on the tray, the bunch had disappeared. And notice ‘the cups of tea were very much appreciated’, so the verb ‘were’ agrees with subject ‘cups’, but if you made ‘the tea’ the subject of the sentence, it would be ‘The tea was very much appreciated’, so ‘tea’ would make the verb singular ‘was’. With me so far? OK….
- Where you’re using ‘of’ to talk about ‘portion’ or ‘proportion’ - that means the amount of a whole, it works the opposite way round. So here the verb goes with the part of the subject which goes after the ‘of’. So words like ‘Most of….’, ‘some of ‘, ‘fifty percent of….’ ‘a half of….’, ‘A lot of...’ So some example sentences here…..
- ‘A lot of the cake has been eaten’, [but] ‘A lot of the cakes have been eaten’
- ‘Some of the city was without electricity’ but ‘Some of the cities were without electricity’
- ‘Half of the apple was gone’ but ‘Half of the apples were gone’
Can you see why it’s easy to make mistakes with this one – so there are some very common mistakes that English language learners make with this. It’s understandable why.
- With ‘either’ ‘or ‘neither’ (or ‘either’ or ‘neither’), you have to be careful – although there are two subjects, the verb is singular. Neither my dentist nor my doctor has been able to help me. Either your boss or your colleague has shut down your laptop. Luckily neither my cat nor my dog was at home, when the fire broke out.
- But be careful here, if the one part of the subject is plural, the verb will also be plural…..so listen to these differences.
- Neither my dentist nor my doctors have been able to help me.
- Either your boss or your colleagues have shut down your laptopl.
- Luckily neither my cats nor my dog were at home, when the fire broke out.
So it’s singular, when the either or neither is about two separate subjects, but if there’s anything plural in there, the verb changes to plural.
- With ‘there are….’ or ‘here are….’
- There are four cakes in the oven.
- There is a pie in the kitchen.
- Here are the gloves which you need to do the gardening.
- Here is the hotel that you are going to stay in tonight.
So notice the verb here agrees with the subject which comes after…..here are, here is, there are, there is….
- If you’re talking about distances, periods of time, sums of money and the point of the discussion is the amount, the quantity of something, the verb may be singular when you don’t expect it to be.
- The three hundred pounds was in a drawer.
- Seven years is a very long time
- Six hundred miles is too far to drive in a day!
- Twenty three kilograms is the weight limit for luggage on the airline.
So just be careful around quantity.
- When we use ‘besides’ or ‘along with’, so that the meaning is plural, the verb may still take the singular form to agree with the main subject of the sentence.
- My cousin, as well as my friend, was in the car.
- The man, along with his wife, was excited.
- Besides my sore head, my sore finger is bothering me today. And lastly…..
- Where there’s a compound expression, formed by two or more nouns, which are often used as a pair, you might find a singular form of the verb. So again examples to help you understand.
- Fish and chips is my favourite takeaway.
- The bed and breakfast was very nice.
It works like this because ‘fish and chips’ and ‘bed and breakfast’ (or B&B) are special phrases, things which are commonly seen as going together, an experience if you like. So they end up being used like a singular noun – and the verb agrees with the singular noun, as though it were a singular subject!
So there is quite a lot to this, isn’t there? So for practice listen a few times to this podcast on common mistakes that English language learners make around subject verb agreement. Or rather Seven Common Mistakes that English Language Learners Make Around Subject Verb Agreement!
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.