We agree but she agrees: the importance of subject-verb agreement

Szymon Migaj/EyeEm/Getty

by Liz Walter

One of the most common errors students make is to miss the ‘s’ from verbs after he, she or it:

Maria likes pizza.

Maria like pizza.

Of course, people will still understand you if you make this mistake, but you would lose marks for it in an English exam.

This sort of error is called an agreement error. Every normal sentence has a subject (in this case Maria) and a verb (like). The form of the verb depends on who or what the subject is. First, you need to think about whether the subject is singular or plural:

The horse eats grass.

The horses eat grass.

Then you need to remember the basic pattern:

I / you / we / they eat

he / she / it eats

The same pattern exists for any tenses formed with auxiliary verbs (be, have, do). You need to be especially careful with these verbs because they are irregular.

We have eaten the cake.

He has eaten the cake.

Lara is going to school.

Lara and Emma are going to school.

Adam doesn’t like cheese.

Adam and Ethan don’t like cheese.

By the way, you may hear people whose first language is English saying ‘we / you / they was’. Although this is fairly common, it is not standard English, and people who say it risk being harshly judged by those who don’t!

One blog reader recently asked about verb agreement for group nouns such as team, group and family. These are all singular words but they are used to describe more than one person. Oddly, the rule here is different in British and American English. Americans treat these strictly as singulars:

His family was very proud.

This is also correct in British English, but we allow a plural verb too:

His family were very proud.

So, in British English, you can use either form. However, you must use the same form consistently, unlike the song by Elvis Costello, which has the lyrics, ‘Oliver’s army is here to stay / Oliver’s army are on their way’!

Learners often make errors with There is / There’s … , which must be followed by a singular subject and There are … , which must be followed by a plural subject:

There’s a book on the table.

There are some books on the table.

At a slightly more advanced level, either and neither must have a singular verb if they are followed directly by a noun, but they can have a singular or a plural verb when they are followed by of (though again, it is important to use the same form throughout your text):

Neither man enjoys tennis.

Neither of the men enjoys / enjoy tennis.

Let me know if you have any other queries about this topic.


24 thoughts on “We agree but she agrees: the importance of subject-verb agreement

  1. Song Zeya

    Could you please let me know whether a singular or plural form should be used when the subject is ‘Not only A but also B and C’?
    Thank you!

  2. Hadeel Hammam

    In Austen’s Sense and Sensibility I read a sentence ” they was ” and I was shocked for a while. I interpreted it could be a way of uneducated people used to say as the character was a servant.

  3. Kate

    I struggle to know what to say:
    The police is/are on the scene.
    The army is/are on the scene.
    I would say Police – plural and Army – singular
    Am I right or wrong and why?

    1. Liz Walter

      That’s interesting about police – I agree that only plural sounds natural. For army, either works.

    2. alaa

      the army is ….. you mean the whole army but when you say the army are then you mean the members of the army i. I think it depends on what you mean . I think that

  4. Bahareh golpour

    How about either ….. or?
    Either this restaurant is excellent or that one.
    Either this restaurant are excellent or that one.
    I mean, Which one is correct?

  5. Limon Hasan Alif

    hello mam. let me know plz… I read it at bbc website… is it correct? they have used ‘have’ after ‘neither’… “Both Oslo in Norway and the Spanish capital Madrid have made headlines in recent years for their plans to ban cars from their centres – although neither have entirely got rid of them yet.”

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