By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated, November 11, 2013)
A subject (noun or pronoun) is the person, place, thing, or idea that is or does something in the sentence, while a verb represents the action or state of being:
In the sentence, Jane ate turnips with ketchup, Jane is the subject and ate is the verb. In the sentence, Jane was unhappy with her meal, Jane is the subject and was is the verb.
Verbs must be matched to their subjects so that a singular subject is paired with a singular verb and a plural subject is matched with a plural verb.
In simple sentences such as the following, it’s easy to determine whether the verb should be singular or plural:
The pie eating contest was fun. / The pie eating contests were fun.
However, when sentences are more complex, determining which verb form to use becomes more difficult:
The pie eating contest, which included several events, was fun. In this case was is still the appropriate form because the subject, contest is singular, even though extra information has been added between the subject and verb.
To determine which verb form is correct, identify the subject of the sentence (the person, place, thing, or idea that does something or is something):
- Only one of the applicants was qualified.
- Spain, along with many other countries in Europe, is a popular tourism destination.
- Many types of music, including heavy metal, were played at the event.
- Happiness, which is among the most desirable mental states, often comes later in life.
When using either/or and neither/nor with singular subjects, the verb will be singular as well:
- Neither Jane nor John plays the didgeridoo.
- Either Jane or John writes the offensive haikus on the bathroom wall.
When either/or and neither/nor subjects are plural, the verb is also plural:
- Neither cats nor dogs were allowed in the museum of twine balls and squeaky things.
- Either fries or potatoes are included with the pancake feast.
When one subject is plural and the other is singular, match the verb to the subject closest to it:
- Neither the buffalo nor the kangaroos were willing to pull the sled.
- Either the alligators or the porcupine was responsible for the damage to Mrs. Mulligan’s gazebo.
Pronouns such as each, someone, somebody, everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, no one, nobody, and every should be paired with singular verbs:
- Someone is eating the potpourri.
- Everybody knows what happened to Micheal’s sugar cube collection.
- Nobody goes there since Nina put a curse on the place.
Collective nouns (nouns that represent more than one person, animal, or thing) such as family, herd, crowd, fleet, and team usually take singular verbs:
- My family is from a planet in a galaxy far away.
- The team was responsible for several new initiatives, including Food Fight Fridays.
- The crew is abandoning ship due to the presence of a large spider on the deck.
- The committee was unable to function effectively with that angry skunk pacing around the meeting room.
- The company works with a number of consultants to develop its terrible brands.
- A herd of buffalo was stampeding through Wal-Mart.
- The crowd was surging forward to catch a glimpse of the man juggling 16 Mr. Potato Heads.
- The fleet was relocated to a different port because the original docking site had a sea monster problem.
However, when referring to members of a collective as individuals, plural verbs may be used:
- The team has arrived. (The team has arrived as a group.)
- The team have been given their assignments. (The individual team members have received their assignments.)
- The jury reaches its verdict. (The jury as a whole has made its judgement.)
- The jury take their seats. (Individual members of the jury each sit down in their assigned seats.)
- Joe’s family is from Europe. (The origins of his family as a whole are European.)
- Joe’s family are all taking separate vacations this year because they hate each other. (Each member of Joe’s family will spend his or her vacation at a different destination due to their mutual animosity.)
A few collective nouns always take a plural verb:
- People are protesting the failure of science to provide flying cars.
- The cattle are restless because Farmer Joe keeps giving them coffee.
- The police are working on the case, but the hamster thief remains at large.
If an adjective (a descriptive word) is used as a collective noun, always use a plural verb with it:
- The rich get richer.
- The well-educated earn more money on average.
- The homeless are throwing handfuls of mayonnaise at the rich.
For dollars, use a singular verb when referring to particular amounts, but a plural verb with dollars in general:
- Ten dollars is not a lot of money these days.
- Canadian dollars are similar in value to American dollars.
There are a few words that refer to a single object but take plural verb because they comprise a pair of something (for example, tweezers, scissors, trousers, pants, pliers, tongs, and glasses):
- His pants are on backwards and his glasses are upside down.
- The scissors were dull after Marcus cut Leila out of all the wedding photos and replaced her with pictures of Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek.
A note about none: As a subject, None can be singular or plural depending on whether the thing it refers to can be counted or is a portion of something:
None of the meals were eaten but None of the food was eaten.
- BBCLearning English. (n.d.). “Noun-Verb Agreement.” BBC.co.uk.
- O’Conner, P. T. (1996). Woe Is I, the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
- Oxford Dictionaries. (2013). “Matching Verbs to Collective Nouns.” OxfordDictionaries.com.
- Paiz, J. M.; Berry, C.; & Brizee, A.; OWL at Purdue. (2012). “Making Subjects and Verbs Agree.” The Writing Lab & the OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. Owl.English.Purdue.edu.