Welcome to another grammar tutorial. Today, we will discuss subject-verb agreement. Subject-verb agreement means making sure the subject (who/what the sentence is about) is properly matched to the verb (action the subject is taking) in a sentence. This lesson is fundamental to English skills, and many English speakers would recognize subject-verb disagreements in conversation, even if they couldn’t identify why the statements sounded wrong. Grasping these fundamental rules becomes essential when editing complex sentence structures.
The singularity or plurality of a clause’s subject determines how its subject(s) and verb(s) are paired. This sounds confusing, so let’s pick it apart. An “independent clause” is an independent phrase–basically, it’s a sentence. In the first sentence, I used “clause” rather than “sentence” because one sentence may contain both independent clauses and dependent clauses. A “dependent clause” cannot stand alone and begins with conjunctions or relative pronouns, listed here. In the following sentence, there’s an independent clause and a dependent clause: Aristotle was more scientific, while Plato was more spiritual. “Aristotle was” is one subject-verb set, and “Plato was” is the other subject-verb set. The first clause in the example sentence is independent and can stand alone: Aristotle was more scientific. The dependent clause has a subject and verb but can’t stand alone: while Plato was more spiritual. Here’s a link explaining when to use or not use a comma with “while,” a distinction I only learned recently.
With a preliminary discussion about clauses out of the way, we can return to the phrase “singularity or plurality of a clause’s subject.” We now know about clauses, and “singularity” or “plurality” of a subject refers to amount. A singular subject references one person or entity, and a plural subject references multiple people or entities. The subjects from the examples–Aristotle and Plato–were singular, so we used “was” for both clauses. If the subject of the sentence was plural, the verb would change. Example: Aristotle and Plato were rhetoricians. The verb “was” changed to “were.”
Some of this advice appears basic and obvious to a native English speaker, but acknowledging these rules about singularity, plurality, independent clauses, and dependent clauses is key to finding subject-verb agreement errors in complicated sentences, where the mistakes occur most often. When editing your work, you must be able to weed through the parts of a long sentence to identify the subject and verb, assuring that they agree. Here’s an example of subject-verb disagreement in a compound sentence: The organization raises money for charity but take a profit. “Take a profit” is not a dependent clause because it doesn’t contain a subject and a verb, so we must identify the subject for the verb “take.” The organization is the subject of both clauses; it both raises money and takes a profit. Therefore, the accurate version of the sentence reads, “The organization raises money for charity but takes a profit.”
Let’s examine subject-verb disagreement in a complex sentence. Here’s a sentence from an essay of mine: Enthymemes bolster our opinions, or our presentations of “the real facts,” because drawing conclusions from examples, signs, and general observation strengthen the validity of those opinions. Did you catch the mistake? Let’s identify the clauses in this sentence. “Enthymemes bolster our opinions […]” is an independent clause, and the subject-verb pair is “enthymemes bolster.” The other half of the sentence is a dependent clause: “because drawing conclusions from […] strengthen the validity of those opinions.” The subject-verb pair is “drawing strengthen.” “Drawing” is singular (explanation of gerunds), but “strengthen” pairs with plural nouns. The sentence should read, “Enthymemes bolster our opinions, or our presentations of “the real facts,” because drawing conclusions from examples, signs, and general observation strengthens the validity of those opinions.” The plural word “conclusions” next to “drawing” would confuse many people and cause oversight, but if you proofread with a cautious eye for subject-verb disagreement, you can catch these clunky errors.
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