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MA Program in the Teaching of English and Applied

Hebron University

The Agreement of the Subject and the Verb In


Motaz Zyad Arjan


Instructor: Dr. Ahmad Atawneh


This paper examines the phenomenon of subject verb agreement in

English. The major cases of this agreement are provided with good
examples to illustrate them. Quirk's classifications of concord which is the
same as agreement are linked to the cases. There are problematic cases
that cause confusion to ESL/EFL learners of English.

This paper aims at exploring the subject verb agreement or the concord in English.

There are several cases in plurality and singularity showed in this paper. Cases of

agreement and of disagreement are going to be listed in this paper. The phenomenon

of the agreement between the subject and the verb is examined in terms of its cases

and the most frequent errors. Kinds of concord were examined in this paper. Some of

the problematic points in subject verb agreement were showed.

Quirk et al (1985) define the agreement between the subject and the verb as the

relationship between two grammatical units such that one of them displays a

particular feature that accords with a displayed feature in the other.

One of the main problems most students face in grammar is keeping the agreement

between the subject and the verb consistent in a sentence. The communicative

approach aims at enabling students to develop a communication skill that helps in

international contact since English is “lingua franca".

All nouns and pronouns have number. They have to agree with the verb. As Quirk

1985 asserts that Agreement and concord can be defined as the relationship between

two grammatical units one of them displays a particular feature that accords with a

displayed feature in the other.

Svartvik & Sager (1986) describe agreement as two or more grammatical elements

agreeing with another. Agreement demands that a subject in the singular is followed

by a finite verb in the singular and that a subject in the plural is followed by a finite

verb in the plural.

The subject and the verb have to agree in number; if the subject is singular, "the

third person s" has to be attached to the verb, and if the subject is plural, the third

person s" has to be omitted.

As said above, there must be an agreement between the subject and the verb in

sentences of English language. Both must be singular, or both must be plural. The

general rule regarding the subject verb agreement says that in most straightforward

cases we have to use the third person singular inflection if the subject is a singular

proper noun, a singular common noun, a mass noun, or a third person singular

pronoun. For proper or common plural nouns, for first or second person singular

pronouns, or for plural pronouns, no inflection is used in the present tense.

Leech and Svartvik(1994) raised categories of requirement in English. These

concord requirements are listed in the following categories:

1- number: whether a constituent is in singular form or plural form.

2- person: whether a constituent is in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person form.

3- gender: whether a constituent is masculine, feminine or neuter.

Principles of Grammatical Concord, Notional Concord and


1- Grammatical Concord:

Quirk (1972) refers to it as the rules that the verb matches its subject in number.

2- Notional Concord:

It is the agreement of the verb with the subject according to the notion of number

rather than with the actual presence of the grammatical marker for that notion.

3- Proximity:

He refers to it as the agreement of the verb with the noun or the pronoun that closely

precedes it.
Basic Cases of Agreement between the Subject and the Verb:

There are cases in which the subject and the verb have an agreement. These cases

are known of being simple and having no ambiguity in their production either in

writing or in speech. These cases are simple and easy for both native speakers and

nonnative. For example: these two examples illustrate the use of third person singular

inflection. If the subject is singular, the third person singular inflection must be

attached to the verb. The subject could be a noun or a pronoun that refers to an

omitted noun.

- John walks to school everyday.

- She wants an apple.

The following examples demonstrate no use of third person singular inflection:

- The boys like playing football.

- They write their assignments on time.

The former examples illustrate the simple and the general rule of subject verb

agreement. They are used by native speakers as well as nonnative speakers. If the

subject is plural, the verb has no third person singular inflection.

Not only should the subject and verb agree according to Murcia (1983), but a

pronoun also should agree with the word it refers to. If a word refers to a singular, the

pronoun should be singular; if the word refers to a plural, the pronoun should be


- He walks to school everyday.

- They walk to school everyday.

As you noticed above, the pronoun" he" refers to singular noun. We can omit the

pronoun and insert singular noun instead. The second example illustrates the reference
of the pronoun to a plural noun, so we can omit the pronoun and insert a plural noun

(the boys) instead.

The two former examples illustrates that the agreement takes place not only

between the noun subjects but also between pronouns.

The general rules:

This rule can be generalized in concord in English language. They are simple and

easy to be understood by native speakers and nonnative. These rules are

straightforward cases with no ambiguity and problems. They are explained by Quirk

(1985) as the following:

1- Singular subject requires a singular verb:

- Sami eats an apple everyday.

2- When the subject is realized by a noun phrase, the phrase counts as singular if

its head is singular:

- The change in the male attitudes is obvious in industry.

- The changes in the male attitudes are obvious in industry.

3- Finite and nonfinite clauses generally count as singular.

- To make a cup of coffee is an easy thing.

- Doing a research is not easy.

4- Prepositional phrases and adverbs functioning as subjects are singular:

- In the evening is best for me.

But the exception for clauses is the nominal relative clauses. Their number

depends on the interpretation of the number of the "Wh-element". The concord of

"What" and "Whatever" depends on the number of the determined noun.

- What ideas he has are his wife's.

The above are considered as unproblematic rules regarding the agreement between

the subject and the verb, so they are easy and simple to be understood and to be

produced either in writing or in speech.

Quirk (1985) makes a list of cases where the general rule he raised before does not

work. The application of the general rule does not work in the following cases. First,

because the verb "be" shows a distinction of number only in the 3 rd person present, the

verb does not show concord in the past.

- My sister watched the accident.

- My sisters watched the accident.

Second, number concord is displayed only in the indicative. Nonfinite verbs,

imperatives, and subjunctive make no number distinctions. Finally, modal auxiliaries

make no number distinctions. For example:

- My sister may watch the film tonight.

Regarding the cases of agreement, Azar(2002) gives a good summary for these

cases can be understood and used in speech or writing. This list is like a rule to follow

for understanding the agreement between the subject and the verb.

As many grammarians, Azar agrees by saying that singular subject needs a singular

verb, and plural subject needs plural verb.

- Ali speaks English fluently.

The Compound Subjects:

Azar (2002) claims that when two or more subjects connected by "and", they

require a plural verb. Murcia (1983) asserts that when two or more subjects are joined

by the conjunction “and,” the subject of the sentence is plural.


- Sami and his sister go shopping everyday.

Langan(2008) confirms that when two subjects are joined by and , the thay

generally take plural verb, e.g.:

- Ambition and good luck are the keys to success.

Every and Each:

Azar(2002) asserts that "every "and" each "are always followed immediately by

singular nouns, so they require a singular verb even when there are two or more nouns

connected by "and".

- Every man, woman, and child needs love.

Murcia (1983) raises a crucial point in which she claims that when the subject

quantifier is each or every(one), the rules are more straightforward. When the

quantified subject noun is singular, there is no problem: the subject-verb agreement is

always singular. However, when the quantified noun refers to a definite plural set,

there can be problems for ESL students since the quantifiers are grammatically

singular yet the set they are modifying is notionally plural, e.g.:

- Each student has a textbook.

- Each of his examples were/was logical.

The second example is justified by Murcia by saying that The traditional

prescriptive rule maintains that singular subject-verb agreement applies in such cases

because each and every (one) are functioning as grammatically singular subjects.

Subjects and Verbs Separated by Other Words:

It is clear that the subject and the verb can be separated by other words. This

means the clauses and the phrases that interrupt the subject and verb. These

interrupting structures that separate the subject from the verb do not affect the

agreement. A modifying phrase that starts with a gerund, a preposition, or a relative

pronoun has no effect on the case of the verb, even when it falls between the subject

.and verb

Annala(2008) affirms that if a prepositional phrase comes between the subject and

the verb, the verb agrees with the subject, not a pronoun or noun in the phrase. He

also adds that expressions such as with, together with, along with, including, as well

as, accompanied by, in addition to, or as well do not change the quantity of the

:.subject. If the subject is singular, the verb is singular too, e.g

.That book on political parties is interesting -

:Finite and Nonfinite Clauses

Quirk (1985) claims that finite and nonfinite clauses are generally singular.

.Gerunds and to infinitive clauses are examples for this case

Azar(2002) supports what Quirk said. In his book, he asserts that when a Gerund is

:.used as the subject of a sentence, it requires a singular verb, e.g

.Growing flowers is her hobby -

.To do a research is not an easy cake -

:Expressions of Quantity

In most of expressions of quantity, the verb is determined by the noun or the

pronoun that follows" of". Quirk (1985) asserts that theses expressions have both

count and noncount uses. With noncount nouns, the verb is singular for example,

some cement has arrived. With plural count nouns, the verb is plural. He adds that

prescriptive grammars have tended to insist on the singular verb, but notional concord

invites plural verbs, which tends to be more frequently used and is generally accepted

.even in formal usage

.Some of the books are good -

.Some of the book is good -

:One of, Each of, and Every one of

:.One of, each of, and every one of always require singular verbs, e.g

.One of my friends is here -

.Each of my friends is here -

.Every one of my friends is here -

:None of

Regarding none of, Azar in his book asserts that when none of requires singular

verb is formal English. When it requires plural verb, it is informal speech writing.

Quirk raises convincing explanation in dealing with none of. He claims that none of

.has both usages

.None of the books has been placed on the shelves -

.None of the books have been placed on the shelves -

:Collective nouns

Collective nouns differ from ordinary nouns in that they can be followed by either "

singular or plural verbs when they are in singular, and consequently they can take

either singular it and relative which or plural they and relative who as pronoun co

.referent."(Annala, 2008)

From the above, we notice that collective nouns seem to be problematic for EFL

and ESL learners. These nouns may take either a singular or plural inflection

:.depending on their meaning, e.g

.The Gang of four has been discredited -

.The Gang of four has been discredited -

The first example refers to the Gang as a whole, but the second refers to the

.individual gang members

Azar(2002) asserts that these nouns can be both singular and plural, but they

.require singular and plural verbs simultaneously

Quirk's example illustrates this problem in collective verbs. These nouns are treated as

.plural in British English, so they require plural verbs

.The government have broken all their promises -

As Proximity refers to the agreement of the verb with the noun or the pronoun that

closely precedes it, the reason behind using plural is because the nearest noun to have

is the government.

- No one except his own supporters agree with him.

:The number VS A number

.The number of students in the class is fifteen -

.A number of students were late for the class -

The former examples show different features that accord with grammatical unites.

In the first example, the number is treated as singular, but in the second, a number is

treated as plural. The second is treated as plural because it is an expression of quantity

.meaning "a lot of", so it is followed by a plural noun and plural verb

:Either …..Or and Neither ……nor

As Quirk refers to the case which the plurality and singularity of the verb is

determined by the nearest noun to the verb, the noun that comes after or and nor are

:.determines the plurality or singularity of the verb, e.g

.Either Ali or his brother is coming to the lecture -

.Neither Ali nor his brothers like Oranges -

Quirk asserts that Native speakers do not follow the proximity principle, but they

.support it more strongly for either…..or than for neither…..nor

Regarding the use of either…or and neither…nor, Langan(2002) claims that when

two subjects are joined by either…or, neither…nor, the verb agrees with the subject

.closer to the verb

:There is VS There are

Sung-Ho (2004) asserts that the plurality of the verb BE is determined by the

:.subject that follows it, e.g

There are twenty students in the class. ( Formal) -

There is a fly in the room. (Formal) -

There is a book and a pen in the drawer. (Informal and Colloquial ) -

The last example in the former ones is frequent but informal and not considered to be

.grammatically correct

:Arithmetic Expressions

:.Arithmetic expressions always require singular verb, e.g

Two plus Two equals Four -

.Five times five is twenty-five -


Most of the rules of agreement between the subject and the verb are straightforward

and uncontroversial, but there are some cases that EFL/ESL learners may face

difficulty in the production of this phenomenon. Native speakers use plural verbs with

singular nouns and singular verbs with plural nouns, so the general rule of Quirk can

be broken because of semantics and varieties of English. Semantically, the use of

plural or singular verb is determined by the meaning of the subject. Varieties of

English (British and American English) caused no straightforward treatment of the

.subject and the verb


Annela, H.(2008). Changes in subject verb agreement with collective nouns

in British English from 18th century to the present day, Collective nouns.
University of Tampere, p. 10.

Azar, B (2002). Understanding and using English grammar, subject verb

agreement, 3rd edition. Pearson Education,10 Bank street, White plains. P.84-90

Langan, J(2008). Exploring Writing, sentences and Paragraphs, subject verb

agreement.Atlantic Community college. P, 84

Leech, G. & Svartvik, J. (1994). A communicative grammar of English. 2nd

ed. London: Longman. P,541

Murcia & Larson(1983).Grammar Book, Problems in subject verb agreement.

London, Newbury House. P,38-44.

Quirk, R .Greenbaum.(1985). A comprehensive Grammar of the English

language, subject verb agreement. London, Longman. P,755.

Sung-Ho. A. (2004). Some cases of disagreement in English : when Genitive

Grammar meets the Genitive lexicon. Department of English education,
Hanyang University. China.