"Dr. Vikram A. Sarabhai, (left) Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and head of India's Department of Atomic Energy and Dr. Thomas O. Paine, NASA Administrator, sign an agreement to cooperate in an unprecedented experiment using a space satellite to bring instructional television programs to some 5,000 Indian villages. The Applications Technology Satellite 6 (ATS 6)satellite launched May 30, 1974, became available to the ISRO for one year on August 1, 1975. ATS 6 acted as a broadcasting station in space, sending health and educational television programs to inexpensive ground stations in remote villages of India." --By NASA Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Unfortunately, subject-verb agreement is not the same as the type of agreement made between Dr. Sarabhai and Dr. Paine involving rockets, space, satellites, and television. But without subject-verb agreement, the cooperation between India and the U.S. would’ve been unthinkable. Without consistency between subject and verb, they would have found it hard to reach any agreement.
When testmakers test for grammar on the GRE, GMAT, and SAT, they build questions based on a limited number of common grammar mistakes. One mistake, in particular, they like to test for is subject-verb agreement. This grammar point is commonly tested because the general population commonly commits this error. As such, testmakers can take a random selection of students and rank them based on the results of targeted grammar question. Then they merely compare the student’s results with what they already know about the general population. Also, subtleties in this grammar point allow the testmakers to vary question difficulty based on these exceptions and ambiguities.
I. Singular = Singular, Plural = Plural
If a sentence has a singular subject, use a singular verb; if it has a plural subject, use a plural verb. In most cases, the verb will be the base form (e.g., give, love, meditate). Only when you encounter third-person singular (e.g. he, she, it, Jamie, etc.), will the verb ending change.
- He loves ice cream.
- They love ice cream.
II. Compound Subjects Joined by “and”
When two nouns are used as subjects of a sentence and are joined by the conjunction “and,” use a plural verb.
- Franco and Starbuck love ice cream.
- The Hungarians and the Austrians love ice cream.
III. Subjects joined by “or” and “nor”
When two nouns are used as subjects in a sentence, and are joined by the conjunctions “or” and “nor,” use a verb that agrees with the last noun in the compound subject. In the first example, friends is the last noun, so the base form of the verb (plural form) is used. But, switch the order of the nouns, and the verb will change.
- Zaarf nor his alien friends love ice cream.
- His alien friends nor Zaarf loves ice cream.
IV. Indefinite Pronouns
When an indefinite pronoun (anything, anybody, anyone, everything, everybody, everyone, something, someone, each, other, either, neither, none, no, and no one) is used as a subject, use a singular verb.
- Everyone screams for ice cream.
Exceptions: Some indefinite pronouns (all, any, and some) may be singular or plural depending on the noun or pronoun they refer to. In the first example, all is replacing the singular noun ice cream, and in the second example, all replaces the plural noun scoops.
- All of the ice cream is delicious.
- All of the scoops of ice cream are delicious.
V. Collective Nouns
Remember, a collective noun names a number of things or individuals grouped together in one unit. More often than not, collective nouns are treated as singular subjects unless the meaning obviously implies a plural meaning.
- The ice cream club meets to discuss new ice cream flavors.
- The ice cream club argue the merits of new ice cream flavors.
The last sentence is a little awkward and could be improved, and actually, should be improved, for clarity to include the word members: “The members of the ice cream club argue the merits of new ice cream flavors.”
Example of Collective Nouns: jury, committee, party, majority, audience, crowd, class, troop, family, and couple.
VI. What to do with “who,” “which,” and “that”
The antecedent of the pronoun will tell you the verb form to use. “Who,” “which,” and “that” are relative pronouns and, like all pronouns, are controlled by the nouns that they replace.
- The ice cream bowls, which are pre-chilled and perfectly crafted to enhance flavor, are gone.
- The ice cream that is made here is consumed here.
Exceptions: Some confusion can occur when deciding what verb to use with “one of the” and “only one of the.” Consider “one of the” as plural and “only one of the” as singular.
VII. Looks Plural but it’s Singular
Some words in our language have the characteristics of plural nouns, but through usage, are paired with singular verbs. For example, athletics, economics, mathematics, physics, news, and measles all appear to be plural, but in common usage they are paired with singular verbs.
- Mathematics is a language.
Exceptions: Just like with collective nouns, there are situations in which these words will need a plural verb. If the noun describes separate entities, use a plural verb.
- Mathematics are useful in a number of applications.
Traps on the Test
In my experience, the following list of exceptions and constructions are common ways to trap, trick, or otherwise befuddle students:
- Subject and verb separated by a prepositional phrase
- Subject and verb are far, far apart usually separated by a phrase or an appositive
- Collective Nouns
- Subject appears after the verb