What are some effective strategies for improving subject-verb agreement?
By far, the stylistic error I encounter most frequently as a writing teacher and editor is subject/verb agreement. As you already know, you have to be sure that paired subjects and verbs “go together” grammatically. What this usually means (especially when you write in present tense) is that if a subject is singular its accompanying verb gets an “s” added to it, but if the subject is plural the verb requires no “s” (i.e., “the material ages” and “the materials age” are both correct). Simple, right? Your ear confirms the subject/verb agreement for you. For many writers, though, confusion arises when the subject and verb are distanced from each other in the sentence. Improving subject-verb agreement is essential for maintaining grammatical accuracy in writing. Here are some effective strategies for enhancing subject-verb agreement:
Identify the Subject and Verb:
Ensure clarity in identifying the subject and the corresponding verb in a sentence. Understanding the relationship between the subject and the verb is the first step in achieving agreement.
Recognize Singular and Plural Forms:
Be attentive to the singular and plural forms of subjects and verbs. This includes recognizing irregular plural forms and collective nouns that may require singular or plural verbs.
Pay Attention to Indefinite Pronouns:
Be mindful of indefinite pronouns like “everyone,” “everything,” “somebody,” and “anybody.” Such pronouns typically take singular verbs, and overlooking this can result in agreement errors.
Consider Compound Subjects:
When dealing with compound subjects joined by “and,” the verb should be plural. However, when using “or,” “nor,” “either…or,” or “neither…nor,” the verb should agree with the closer subject.
Watch for Interrupting Phrases:
Keep an eye out for interrupting phrases or clauses between the subject and the verb. Although these phrases provide additional information, they do not affect the agreement between the subject and the verb.
A simple way to check whether your subjects and verbs are compatible is to supply a mental “they” for a plural subject and a mental “it” for a singular subject. (Grammatically, the phrase “The speed of the downdrafts was intense” is the same as “It was intense”; the phrase “Two of the variables are incorrect” is the same as “They are incorrect”). The longer or more complex your sentences are, the more likely you are to have to apply a mental test to your subject/verb agreement at times.
Especially if you find that you are having consistent subject/verb agreement problems, you must make it a habit to do the following:
- Identify the subjects and verbs of your sentences, putting aside the other elements of the sentence momentarily.
- Test the subjects and verbs for compatibility, if necessary by mentally supplying “they” for plural subjects and “it” for singular subjects.
- Remember that a sentence subject that includes an “and” is typically a plural and will therefore need a verb that agrees with a plural.
- If the meaning or grammar of the sentence is unclear, revise so that the subject and verb are closer together in the sentence. Thus, the sentence grammar will be simplified both for you and your reader.