The Fundamentals of
Subject-Verb Agreement

Everything about subject-verb agreement follows this basic rule:

"The finite verb agrees with the subject in person and number."

You'll see how simple and uncomplicated this topic is, if you follow it step by step.

The Four Concepts in the Rule

Understand that four concepts are involved here...

  1. finite verb
  2. subject
  3. person
  4. number

The agreement between the subject and the verb is not as difficult as it seems. This page will guide you through the fundamentals of the topic.

The Subject-Verb Agreement Story

In our subject-verb agreement story, we have two characters and two character traits.

The two characters are...

  1. The subject
  2. The finite verb

For a general understanding of these two characters, click here.

If you want an intimate understanding of them, click these links: subject of a sentence and finite verb.

The two character traits are...

  1. Person
  2. Number

Both these traits (properties) are important.

The Usually Heard Agreement Story

What you usually hear is this...

  • a singular subject takes a singular verb
  • a plural subject takes a plural verb.

A man sits at the counter. Two men sit at the counter.

  • 'a man' is singular; so we have the singular verb sits.
  • 'two men' is plural; so we have the plural verb sit.

Good! "Singular and plural" takes care of the number; but...

What about the person part of the rule?

So let's complete the basic story.

Here is the bit that remains.

Look at these examples:

  • I am sitting at the computer.
  • He is sitting at the computer.

The Question Immediately Arises...

If the subjects 'I' and 'He' are both singular, why then are the verbs different?

So, 'singular or plural' is not the whole of the story.

The Answer

The agreeing verbs are different because the subjects belong to different grammatical persons.

  • The subject 'I' is in the first person;
    so the verb is 'am sitting.'

  • The subject 'He' is in the third person;
    so we have 'is sitting' - a different form of the verb.

So let's repeat the fundamental lesson

The finite verb agrees with the subject in person and number.

Not "number" only, but "person and number."

Subject-Verb Agreement for Simple Subjects

We now know what finite verbs do.

A finite verb has a good look at the subject (from top to bottom)! In that one look, it determines the person and number of the subject, and then it responds appropriately with its own sweet form!

Agreement in the Present Tense

Let's take an action verb first...

"sing"

  Singular Plural
First Person I sing We sing
Second Person You sing You sing
Third Person He/She/It/ any singular subject sings They/ any plural subject sing

Note that the third person singular subject has sings.

The Verb 'Be'

I am, we are, you are, he/she/it/singular is, they/plurals are.

Note the difference in the verb in two places: first person singular and third person singular.

The Verbs 'Have' and 'Do'

  • 'have' - I have, we have, you have, he/she/it has, they have.
  • 'do' - I do, we do, you do, he/she/it does, they do.

Agreement in the Past Tense

It is necessary to remember only the different forms of the verb to be; the other verbs have the same form throughout.

  • 'be' - I was, we were, you were, he/she/it was, they were.
  • 'sing' - I sang, we sang, you sang, he/she/it sang, they sang.

The Agreement Rule and Modals - Will, Shall, Can, Could, etc

When the first word of a finite verb phrase is a modal (e.g. will or shall, as in "future tense" verbs), we need not worry about subject-verb agreement.

Modals don't change form. Also, the form of the next verb after a modal is always the base form (i.e. the bare infinitive).

Examples: will sing, will be, will have, can sing, can be, can have, etc.

Agreement with Compound Subjects

Subjects which have more than one element in them are called compound subjects.

Examples of compound subjects are: he and she; he or she; you or they.

The problem is to determine the number or person of the compound subject so that the rule can be applied.

The rule itself remains unchanged:

The finite verb agrees with the subject in person and number.

I suggest you do a grammar exercise on what we have learnt so far from this page.

For Further Reading and Study...


Related Pages

The Study of Verbs

What is a Verb?

List of Verbs

Principal Parts of Verbs


Types of Verbs

Finite Verbs

Non-Finites (Verbals)

Transitive Verbs

Helping Verbs


Verb Tenses

Subject-Verb Agreement