Subject-Verb Agreement

I. Real Subjects

The subject-verb agreement is tricky in a sentence or dependent clause that begins with the words "there, that, which, who," or "what" because they are not real subjects to determine agreement. You should look for the real subject in the sentence. For example, in the sentence "There are fifteen students in the room today," the real subject is "students," so the word "there" is treated as plural. However, in the sentence "There is a penny on the sidewalk," the real subject is "penny," so the word there is treated as singular.

Study these examples.

  1. There is three prerequisites for this class. (incorrect)
  2. There are three prerequisites for this class. (correct)

The word "there" is standing in for the real subject "prerequisites."

  1. Every teenager knows how to choose clothes that flatters her figure. (incorrect) 

  2. Every teenager knows how to choose clothes that flatter her figure. (correct) 


The word "that" is standing in for the real subject "clothes." 


II. Collective Nouns

Collective nouns express more than one person or thing, for example, "government," "equipment," "furniture," and "faculty," but each word refers to the group as a whole without taking a plural form. Collective nouns are treated as singular when verbs agree with them.

Study these examples.

  1. The government get involved in people’s private business. (incorrect)
  2. The government gets involved in people’s private business. (correct)

"Government" is treated as singular when it agrees with "get."

III. Prepositional Phrases

The subject is not always the same as the noun next to the verb when the subject is followed by a prepositional phrase. For example, in the sentence “One of the many reasons is that it’s too expensive,” the subject is "one," not "reasons." The verb must agree with the real subject, which is the word that comes before the prepositional phrase.

Study these examples.

  1. Everybody on the buses know its route. (incorrect)
  2. Everybody on the buses knows its route. (correct)

IV. Conjunctions

If nouns are connected with the conjunction "and," the subject is plural and the verb must agree with it.

Study these examples.

  1. Mark and his sister is studying at Miami University. (incorrect)
  2. Mark and his sister are studying at Miami University. (correct)       

V. Either/Or and Neither/Nor

When the subject is formed with "either … or" "or neither … nor," make the verb agree with the closest noun to it.

Study these examples.

  1. Either her brothers or her father have the money. (incorrect)
  2. Either her brothers or her father has the money. (incorrect)

Practice

Correct the following.

  1. Alexina found two online articles that is good for her assignment.
  2. Who are Sergey's and Mohammed's English teacher this semester?
  3. There is two sorority sisters in my class, Fatima and Thoa.
  4. Neither the cats nor the dog are responsible for the mess.
  5. Which are older, Enrique or Miguel?

References

Explanations and some examples are adapted with modifications from the following resources:

Bruce, S., & Rafoth, B. A. (2009). ESL Writers: A guide for writing center tutors. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Ferris, D. (2014). Language power: Tutorials for writers. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's.

Raimes, A. (2008). Grammar troublespots: A guide for student writers. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.