Action! Subject-Verb Agreement, Part One



Since movies have been around since the late 19th century, we often forget just how revolutionary they were. It must have been astounding to witness the first successes at capturing not just still pictures, but action. I’ve always found it interesting that the term for movies with sound—“talkies”—never permanently caught on. It’s the action that everyone craves, and, indeed, our brains are incredibly adept at recognizing it

When it comes to language, our love of action is encapsulated in the verb, which is the heart of a sentence. In English, only one type of word can make a grammatically complete one-word sentence: the verb, in imperative (command) sentences such as



The subject, or actor, in sentences like these is an unspoken but understood you.

It’s this focus on action that gives verbs their power. Besides giving it a name, verbs also fix action in time in the past, present, or future, and also tell us how many actors are involved—one or more. Of course, the how many  (“number,” in grammatical terms) has to match between the verb and its subject or subjects.

Let’s take a few installments to dive deeper into verbs, starting with this last point: making sure verbs agree in number—singular or plural—with the subject. Sometimes problems come up when it’s difficult to determine what the true subject of the sentence is: 

Hollywood’s output of memorable, well-crafted movies has declined in recent years.

Do the subject and verb agree in number here? It might be a little difficult to tell at first, but the answer is yes. At first glance the words …movies has… might seem odd, until you go back to find the true subject of the sentence. The phrase of memorable, well-crafted movies describes output, which is actually the subject. If you remove that phrase, you’re left with

Hollywood’s output has declined in recent years.

Now the subject-verb agreement is much more visible: the singular subject output with the singular verb has declined. So removing any modifiers which might obscure the true subject is a good way to check.  

If you’d like to review in more depth how to find the true subject of a sentence, check out this previous post


Compound subjects

What if you have more than one subject in a sentence? It’s simple when you have and linking them: the subject automatically becomes plural and thus takes a plural verb:

Casablanca and A Clockwork Orange are two of my favorite movies.

But what about the words or and nor, which are not inclusive like and? Here we have three possibilities:

If both subjects are singular, use a singular verb: An actor or a director is allowed to use the studio canteen.

If both subjects are plural, use a plural verb: But neither tourists nor the cleaning staff are permitted. 

If you have a combination of a singular and a plural subject, the verb should agree with whichever subject is closest to it: Neither the director nor the actors were happy about the project’s cancellation. (The plural word actors is closer to the verb, so it must also be plural.) This also works when the subjects are paired with not only…but also: Not only trailers but also a public service announcement was shown before the movie started. (The singular word announcement is closer to the verb, so it must also be singular.)


Subjects that can be either singular or plural

Don’t worry, this isn’t as confusing as it might sound. We’re talking about words like couple, total, majority, and number. Sometimes they mean the group as a whole, in which case they are singular and take a singular verb. Here’s a hint: if the word is preceded by the, it’s most likely singular:

The number of movie scripts that never make it to production is astonishing. (Note that this sentence is also a good exercise in determining the real subject—the number. The other words between it and the verb is merely describe number.)

However, if you have a before the word, and especially if it’s followed by of, it’s probably plural and will take a plural verb:

A majority of moviegoers believe that ticket prices are too high.

Another group of words that can be either singular or plural is all, any, and none. Here’s a trick that’s very helpful with these three: think about what is implied. If the sense is all of it, any of it, or none of it—since it is singular, you need a singular verb:

All the movie’s budget was spent before filming was finished. (The sense is all of it, i.e., the budget, so the verb is singular.)

But if the implication is all of them, any of them, none of themsince them is plural, you need a plural verb:

None of the critics are pleased with the new film. (The sense is none of them, i.e., the critics, so the verb is plural.)


I think this is enough for this time around to get us started. But I’ll be back in the next installment with more words that can be either singular or plural, depending on the context, and how to figure that out. In the meantime, practice with the ones we’ve covered here, and look for examples “in the wild” in your reading. Were they all used correctly? Please feel free to share any interesting examples you find below!

We’re In Agreement

By Paulo Ordoveza from Washington, DC - Pandora Are Serious Cat, CC BY 2.0,

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!