You most likely remember that about ten to fifteen years ago there was an Internet phenomenon known as LOLcats: memes featuring pictures of cats with silly, grammatically challenged captions. Perhaps the idea behind the bad grammar was to imitate baby talk—but whatever the reason, it worked. We all laughed at them and probably shared many of them on social media.
Of course all native speakers of English, as well as non-natives who have mastered the basics, recognize that these sentences are not grammatically correct:
I are serious cat.
Nobody hear you scream.
The problem here is that the subject and verb do not agree: singular subjects need a verb with a singular ending, and plural subjects need a verb with a plural ending. If we were to correct those examples, they would look like this:
I am [a] serious cat.
Nobody hears you scream.
And in English, we actually have it pretty easy when it comes to verb endings: in the present tense, almost all verbs do not need an ending, except for -s or sometimes -es for third person singular (he/she/it):
I hear We hear
You hear You hear
He/she/it hears They hear
Of course the verb to be has to be difficult, as always:
I am We are I was We were
You are You are You were You were
He/she/it is They are He/she/it was They were
When you have a short, simple sentence, such as those above, it’s easy to spot a lack of subject-verb agreement. But how about this one—is it in agreement or not?
The difficulty of reading all those long, tedious books were considerable.
This sentence is in fact not in agreement, and here’s how you can tell: you have to pare the sentence down to just its main subject and main verb. It starts out with the subject, The difficulty, which is then followed by a long prepositional phrase which modifies it: of reading all those long, tedious books. If we remove that phrase, we’re left with The difficulty were considerable, which we can tell right away is not grammatical—it should of course be The difficulty was considerable. Even though the plural books is the word right before the verb was, it doesn’t govern the verb—the true subject is the singular difficulty.
So put back together, the correct version is:
The difficulty of reading all those long, tedious books was considerable.
Figuring out subject-verb agreement can get even trickier in sentences with relative clauses, that is, phrases that start with wh- words such as who and which.
The impact, which current predictions indicate are coming soon, could be huge.
This sentence is not in agreement either, but in all fairness, it is difficult to spot. The first few times I saw examples like this I could not find the error until it was pointed out to me. But it’s because of the relative clause which current predictions indicate are coming soon: phrases of this type usually do not repeat the word being modified. No wonder it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on!
So let’s pick this apart: the main subject of the sentence is The impact. When we get to the relative clause which modifies it, we have to mentally re-word it briefly, re-inserting the subject, the impact, which gives us: current predictions indicate [the impact] are coming soon. Ah, ha! Now we can see that it should in fact be
The impact, which current predictions indicate is coming soon, could be huge.
If you’d like to read in a lot (and I mean a LOT) more depth about how to get to the bottom of complex constructions such as these, I highly recommend a book that has helped me tremendously: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. (I am not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for this endorsement.) This book is a must-have if you’re serious about improving your writing. But best of all, Pinker writes with a lot of humor—this book is anything but dry!
Can you find any sentences “in the wild” that are not in agreement? Please share them below!