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 hasbeen 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.

(Subject in bold, singular finite verb in italics)

Examples – singular subject and singular verb agreement

My dog chases cats. (simple present).

My dog has been chasing cats all day long. (present perfect)

My dog is dreaming about chasing cats right now. (present continuous / progressive)

In all the sentences above, the subject is a “my dog.” It’s just one dog, so it’s singular. The important thing about subjects is to identify the main word, the “head” of the subject noun phrase. In “my dog” the head is “dog,” and that determines verb agreement.

Have a look at the next example:
My big red dog with the two floppy ears loves to chase cats.

The subject is “My big red dog with the two floppy ears.” But dog is still the important word that the verb needs to agree with. Don’t get misled by other nouns around the head, like “ears.” Even native speakers sometimes make agreement errors because they are influenced by the noun that is closer to the finite verb. You always have to find the head.

Singular pronouns
The pronouns he, she, and it also take singular verbs.
He chases cats.
She has been chasing cats all day.
It is chasing a cat right now.

The pronouns I and you are tricky
I refers to a single person, but it takes plural verb forms.

I have two dogs.
I have been walking my dog for an hour now.

But with the verb to be, I takes the singular form (was) in the past tenses.

I was not able to walk my dog yesterday.
I
was walking my dog when I stepped in a pile of dog poop.

You is a little simpler. (Extra credit: Why is it perfectly acceptable to write “You is” in the previous sentence? Isn’t that breaking the rules we just went over?)

You
takes a plural verb in both the present and past tenses.

You eat a lot of junk food. (Just like the plural they/we/the dogs eat.)
You are eating a lot of sugar these days.
You have not been eating enough protein or vegetables.

This is a lot of information and the rules can seem overwhelming. But start with very simple sentences and practice finding the finite verbs and the subjects (and their heads). With practice it gets much easier. And remember, in spoken, informal English people tend to be very forgiving of subject-verb agreement errors (and lots of other errors too). But if you are working on an important piece of writing where you will be judged on your mastery of English, it’s worth taking an extra look at your work just to focus on subject-verb agreement.