Check for Subject-Verb Agreement

Subject-verb agreement means that the verb ending in a sentence (or clause) matches its subject. 

If the subject of the sentence is singular (he, she, it, or the name of one person or thing), the verb form must also be singular. In the present tense, that means the verb will end in ‘s.’

If the subject is plural (more than one: we, they, several people or things)-- or if it is ‘you’ or ‘I’, the verb will not end in ‘s.’

Subject-verb agreement is only a problem when the verb ending is different depending on 'person.' That means it is most often a problem in the 3rd-person singular present tense.

(The verb 'to be' is the only verb that changes form in the simple past tense. It uses 'was' for first & third person singular; 'were' for plurals and the second person.)

Examples:

  • My sister lives near me. My brothers live much farther away. 
  • Were you busy yesterday? No, I wasn't.
  • Jim is studying for a test, but his Bill and Joe are playing baseball instead. 
  • The mother of the girls is busy. (Note: 'mother' is the subject.)
  • Do people in your town take the bus much? Most don't, but one organization wants to change that.

See Present Tense Verbs, The Verb to Be, and Question Formation if you aren't sure of the verb endings.  

Using a verb ending that does not agree with the subject is a common grammar error. It's most likely when the sentence is complex or the subject is not obvious.

In the example above about the busy mother, the verb is singular. It doesn't matter that 'girls' is next to the verb. When you use prepositional phrases (of the girls, on the table, etc.) be careful! The noun in the prepositional phrase is never the subject. (See English Sentence Structure -- Phrases.)

It's still an important error to correct as you proofread your writing before sharing it. A lack of agreement can confuse the reader and will make the writer sound uneducated.

The linked exercise combines reading with a proofreading quiz. It's based on a 2001 Voice of America article. Although it is older, I think it is a good change of pace. It provides vocabulary practice and tests you on basic grammar use.

The article is given sentence by sentence, with a blank to fill in from 2-4 choices provided on each page. After you choose an answer it shows you the correct answer before going on.

Notice the instructions. Click on your computer’s numbers, not the web page answer, to choose each answer. (I didn’t notice, so I thought the quiz didn’t work! At least you don’t need to make my mistake!)

The grammar point it tests most is subject-verb agreement. (As mentioned, this is important for anyone writing in English. Even native speakers sometimes have problems with it.)

Also check that the pronouns are right for the nouns they replace. See the paragraph below for an example.

“John and Mary were scientists in different labs. John sent Mary some data, and asked her to check his results. She wrote back to him, “Your results look good. We evaluated them against our earlier results, and they are quite similar.”

A one-question quiz

Who or what do “they” and “them” refer to?

A. Mary and John

B. Mary

C. John

D. the results

____________________________________

If you answered D, “the results,” you’re right!

Here’s the designer antibiotics article and quiz. I hope you find it interesting and useful!

Here's an excellent more detailed explanation from Purdue University.


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