grammar

Common English Learner Mistakes – subject verb agreement

Mistakes in subject-verb agreement are very noticeable in written English. People tend to overlook mistakes in spoken, conversational English. But in writing, subject-verb agreement errors really jump out at the reader. So it’s a good idea to check important pieces of writing for subject-verb agreement errors.

The good news is that subject-verb agreement is based on rules that you can learn. Here is a short overview of how subject-verb agreement works in the most common type of English sentences (declaritive).

Fortunately, person/number agreement only happens in present tenses. There is only one past tense exception: the verb “to be,” (was/were).

List of tenses that need subject-verb agreement

  • present simple (am/is/are and all other verbs are either base form or -s form)
  • past simple (only the verb to be was/were. Other verbs are the same for all persons)
  • present perfect (have/has +V-ed all you have to worry about is getting the has/have correct)
  • present continuous (am/is/are + V-ing. All you have to worry about is getting the am/is/are correct)
  • past continuous (was/were + V-ing. All you have to worry about is getting was/were correct)
  • present perfect continuous (has/have + been + V-ing. All you have to worry about is getting the have/has correct)

Checking subject-verb agreement in English sentences

First, find the finite verb.
Most English sentences have a subject and a finite verb. That is the verb that has to agree with the subject. Finite verbs also change (inflect) to show tense.

If a sentence has only one verb, then it is a finite verb.

My Maserati does 185.
He wants to hold your hand.
Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.

If a finite verb clause has more than one verb, then the finite verb comes first, and gets marked for person, tense, and number.

He has been having trouble with his Maserati for a week now.
She has been wanting to hold his hand for a long time.
Penny Lane was being turned into a shopping mall last time I checked.

Subject-verb number agreement

The rule here is pretty simple: singular subjects take singular verbs. Plural subjects take plural verbs.

What’s tricky is identifying the subject of the sentence, and then deciding if it is singular or plural. It’s not always obvious. We’ll look at some difficult cases later, but first let’s look at some easy examples. …

Finite verb forms in English

Why should you care about finite verb forms?

Finite verb forms in English contain a lot of information. They mark number, person, tense, and mood, all of which contribute to meaning.

Finite verbs are also the the part of the verb phrase that has to agree with the subject (in person and number). In the example below, the subjects are green and the finite verbs are in bold.

If my neighbor’s stupid kids don’t turn down that awful music soon,   I   am going to lose my mind.

Subject-verb agreement is an important part of English grammar. When you make mistakes with subject-verb agreement, it makes it harder for people to understand what you mean. Unless the context is very clear, listeners don’t know if the mistake is in the verb form or in the subject. For example, where is the error in the sentence below?

The package you ordered have arrived. X

We don’t know for sure which is correct:
The package you ordered has arrived (one package).
The packages you ordered have arrived (more than one package).

Even if the meaning is clear from the context, subject-verb agreement errors tend to draw more than their fair share of attention, distracting and even annoying the listener. So it’s worth making the effort to get them right!

Finite verb forms

All English verbs have finite forms for present and past; for example, go vs.went, and stop vs. stopped. (NOTE: A few irregular verbs (put, set, cost, etc.) have present and past forms that are the same.)

All non-modal English verbs (except be) also change form for the third person singular in the present tense (he/she/it goes).

All of this might seem confusing, but the pattern is really pretty straightforward. Look at Table 1 below, and you’ll see it’s a lot simpler in table form.

Table 1. FINITE VERB FORMS
NUMBER PERSON PRESENT PAST
SINGULAR
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • I walk
  • you walk
  • he/she/it walks
  • I walked
  • you walked
  • he/she/it walked
PLURAL
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • we walk
  • you walk
  • they walk
  • we walked
  • you walked
  • they walked

Finite forms of be

The verb be is the naughty problem child of the finite verb family, because it doesn’t follow the regular pattern of most other verbs. (See Table 2 below.)

Table 2. BE
NUMBER PERSON PRESENT PAST
SINGULAR
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • I am
  • you are
  • he/she/it is
  • I was
  • you were
  • he/she/it was
PLURAL
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • we are
  • you are
  • they are
  • we were
  • you were
  • they were

The two most frequent verbs in English – be and have

Be and have are extremely frequent in English — in fact, they are the two MOST FREQUENTLY OCCURRING verbs. It’s not just because being and having are generally common things to talk about. The finite forms of be and have used in many English tenses, for example: …

Phrasal verbs – essential things to know

Josh Evans of Spoken phrasal verb english lesson
Josh Evans, online English teacher from the Spoken Language Learning Platform
There is one topic that English learners seem to ask about more than any other: phrasal verbs. These strange little verbs are a real challenge for learners!

In this English lesson from Josh Evans, you will learn the main reasons that phrasal verbs are difficult for English learners, and how you can make learning them easier.

Josh has taught English in many different settings — all across China, at a university in the USA, and now teaches English online with the Spoken language learning platform.

Take it away, Josh!

All You Need to Know about Phrasal Verbs! (Plus a Bonus Exercise for FB Messenger!)

by Josh Evans, Head of Instruction at Spoken.io

Phrasal verbs get their name from the fact that, unlike other verbs, they consist of more than one word. Here are three examples:

1. “I’m afraid I must turn down your offer.” (turn down = reject)
2. “I’d like to think over the plan before making a decision.” (think over = consider)
3. “You can use the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words.” (look up = search for)

Why are phrasal verbs so difficult to learn?

There are four main reasons why English phrasal verbs are such a challenge for English learners.

1. Phrasal verbs are deceptively familiar