By Geraldine Woods

To make a good match, as every online-dating service knows, you have to pair like with like. So, too, in grammar: With two important exceptions (explained here), singular subjects pair with singular verbs and plural subjects with plural verbs — a principle that grammarians call agreement.

Sentences with mismatched subjects and verbs often appear on standardized tests. You have to point out the error or choose a better version of the sentence the error appears in. Number-two pencil pushers, pay special attention!

Boning up on the basics

The good news is that most of the time English verbs have only one form for both singular and plural. “I burp” and “the dinosaurs burp” are both correct, even though I is singular and dinosaurs is plural. You have to worry only in these few special circumstances. Here are the rules, with italicized subjects and verbs in the examples so you can locate them quickly:

  • Talking about someone in the present tense requires different verb forms for singular and plural. The singular verb ends in s, as in “he spits” (singular) and “they spit” (plural).
  • Verbs that include does/do or has/have change forms for singular and plural. Singular verbs use does or has. (“John does paint his toenails blue. He has stated that fact.”) Plurals use do and have. (“Do the toenails need more polish? No, they have plenty already.”)
  • I pairs with plural action verbs. The pronoun I is always singular, but “I go” is correct, not “I goes.”
  • You may be either singular or plural, but it always pairs with plural verbs. So you catch a robber, whether you refers to one person or ten.
  • The verb to be changes form according to the noun or pronoun paired with it.
  • Two subjects joined by and make a plural and take a plural verb. As you discovered in kindergarten, one plus one equals two, which is a plural. (“John and Dana plan a bank job every two years.”)
  • Two singular subjects joined by or take a singular verb. The logic here is that you’re saying one or the other, but not both, so two singles joined by or don’t add up to a double. (“Dana or John is cooking tonight.”)
  • Ignore interrupters when matching subjects to verbs. Interrupters include phrases such as “of the books” and “except for . . .” and longer expressions such as “who golfs badly” and “which takes the cake.” (“Kristin, as well as all her penguins, is marching to the iceberg today.”)

Some interrupters (as well as, in addition to) appear to create a plural, but grammatically they aren’t part of the subject and, like all interrupters, have no effect on the singular/plural issue.

  • Here and there can’t be subjects. In a here or there sentence, look for the subject after the verb. (“Here are five beans. There is a bean in your nose.”)
  • The subject usually precedes the verb but may appear elsewhere. (“Around the corner speed the robbers, heading for the getaway car.”)

Practice questions

Test yourself with these questions. Write the correct form of the verb in parentheses.

  1. You probably __________________ John because you __________________ everyone the benefit of the doubt. (believe/believes, give/gives)
  2. There __________________ six teachers taking turns as detention-supervisor. (is/are)

Answers to practice questions

  1. believe, give. The pronoun you always takes a plural verb such as believe and give.
  2. are. The subject is teachers; there is never a subject. Teachers is plural and takes the plural verb are.