Course 1: Lesson 5

 Subject/Verb Agreement

           One of the biggest thorns in the sides of college professors, who are consistently reading hundreds of term and research papers each semester, is the lack of subject-verb agreement in students’ written submissions. Instructors compelled to read the same pages over and over again simply to connect the dots of a student's thought process do not grade kindly. They cannot be blamed for failing to recognize a student's effort when they are forced to stop several times on each written page to figure out the student's intention. Subject-verb agreement is absolutely essential to achieve clarity.

          There is a rhythm to writing. Like a song, or a poem, or a river, good writing flows smoothly. The rhythm of writing allows an author to know when the written product flows and alerts readers when something is wrong, even if they are not looking for errors. Lack of subject-verb agreement is one of those grammatical concepts one just senses is wrong.

          The wise writer pays special attention to subject-verb agreement in EVERY sentence. Special attention does not mean superficial proofreading. It means a deliberate investigation of each sentence to make certain of compliance with the rule. This is especially important since subject-verb errors are most often unintentional and unnoticed by the writer, as opposed to mistakes resulting from ignorance of the rule. This is why so many people hate writing. No one wants to investigate their grammar in every sentence. There is a simple solution.

          Let me begin with an easy example. There is very little chance someone about to embark on a new career would pen a sentence like this:

          I are going to the store.

          People are generally cognizant of the rules requiring singular subjects with singular verbs and plural subjects with plural verbs. Nevertheless, subject-verb agreement is one of the most frequently violated grammatical rules. Why? The most common answer is because writers are fooled by their own rhetoric.

          Let us consider the above example one more time:

          I are going to the store.

          As unlikely as it is that the average person would submit the above sentence, a typical sentence might read:

          I, John Doe, formerly of 123 Main Street in Anytown, USA, along with my cousins, my sisters, my neighbors, my brothers, and various co-employees, are going to the store.

          This writer has made exactly the same mistake. The essence of the above sentence is that the writer is going to the store. Thus, the grammatically correct essence of the sentence is expressed as follows:

          I am going to the store.

          What has changed? All the stuff in between the subject I and the verb am going. By placing all the plural words in the middle, the writer has become confused, believing the verb should agree with the word co-employees, instead of the subject I.  This is a very common error.

          Let us consider another example:

          The players are in danger of losing the championship.

          This idea is easily communicated by the grammatically correct, simple sentence above. However, look at the result of the careless writer’s insertion of additional words into the simple sentence:

          The players, along with their coach, is in danger of losing the championship.

          The meaning of the sentence has not changed, but the writer was fooled into thinking the verb had to agree with the word coach, which is singular. Thus, the writer incorrectly supplies the reader with a singular verb. The sentence should read:

          The players, along with their coach, are in danger of losing the championship.

          Even better and much less confusing would be:

          Along with their coach, the players are in danger of losing the championship.

          Get the picture?

          It is the responsibility of the writer, not the reader, to make certain the meaning of the sentence is clear. Many times, it becomes necessary for the writer to revise a sentence to assure clarity.

          Consider the following sentences. Although they might appear confusing, they are all grammatically correct:

1. The mayor, as well as his brothers, is going to jail.

2. Neither of the two traffic lights is working.

3. Measles is a dangerous disease for pregnant women.

4. A coven of witches was meeting that night.

5. Each of the club members has to pay dues.

6. Some of the hay in the barn, as well as some of the major pieces of farm equipment, was ruined in the flood.

          After many years of reading college papers, I am willing to go out on a limb and suggest the following is representative of one of the most common grammatical errors found in academic writing:

          Whenever I see a child walking to school, they are carrying a backpack.

          Who are they? What is this writer attempting to convey? Are they all carrying the same backpack? The writer really means:

          Whenever I see children walking to school, they are always carrying backpacks.

          Now the subject and verb agree. Children carry backpacks. A child carries a backpack. Dedicated readers attempt to put the pieces together and eventually do, but by that time, it is too late. The writer’s meaning has been lost as a result of the confusing grammar.

          Therefore, writers should be especially aware of the words they and their. They frequently hint that subject-verb agreement problems are inevitable. Consider the following sentences, all of which are incorrect for lack of subject-verb agreement:

1. Bill is a typical boy. They always take their pet frogs to school. Who are they? The writer is speaking only of Bill.

2. He, along with the other committee members, believe their policy is ineffective. He believe? The writer is using the word their to refer to the committee members, but it is He who believes.

3. Everyone must be responsible for the way their behavior affects their coworkers. Everyone is a singular pronoun, so it is his or her behavior and his or her coworkers.

          Imagine driving down a busy roadway in the middle of town in search of an address where your interview for your dream job is scheduled. Imagine what would happen if you failed to keep your eyes on the road. Suppose you stared out the passenger window for a mile or so looking for the address. Crash! Your job opportunity is gone.

          Writing in a confusing manner with subjects and verbs that do not agree is similar to a collision. The attention of the reader is diverted by your faulty grammar. Your meaning has been lost. This is exactly why many high school and college students complain their grades are lower than expected despite the fact their work effort was extraordinary.


          I always suggest to my students a final proofreading of every sentence with the sole focus on subject-verb agreement. Those who take the time to do so write well. The trick is usually to look for the words they and their. Feel free to use them, but remember, they signal potential problems with subject-verb agreement, if they exist.

          Watch out for the words they and their, because subjects and verbs must agree.