10 Subject-Verb Agreement Rules

Modified from an article by Erin Brenner*

Subject-verb agreement sounds easy, doesn’t it? A singular subject takes singular verb:

Tom rides his bike to work every day.


A plural subject takes a plural verb:

The boys are climbing the walls like caged animals.

Yet, The Copyeditor’s Handbook lists no fewer than 25 cases that are not so clear cut, and Garner’s Modern American Usage devotes nearly five columns to the topic. Even the comparatively diminutive Grammar Smart devotes five pages (including quizzes) to the topic.

What makes subject-verb agreement so difficult?

One thing that confuses writers is a long, complicated subject. The writer gets lost in it and forgets which noun is actually the head of the subject phrase and instead makes the verb agree with the nearest noun:

Incorrect: The arrival of new fall fashions have excited all the back-to-school shoppers.
Correct:   The arrival of new fall fashions has excited all the back-to-school shoppers.
(should be has to agree with arrival) 

Another trap for writers is the move away from strict grammatical agreement toward “notional agreement,” that is, the verb agrees with the notion or idea the subject is trying to convey, whether it is singular or plural: 

Incorrect: Twenty-five rules is a lot to digest.
Correct: Twenty-five rules are listed on the notice.


And then there is the fact that English just refuses to follow its own rules. If English can contradict itself, it will.


Here is a brief list of 10 suggestions for subject-verb agreement.

  1. A subject made up of nouns joined by and takes a plural subject, unless that subject’s intended sense is singular.

    She and I run every day.
    Peanut butter and jelly is my favorite sandwich. (intended sense of singular)

  2. When a subject is made up of nouns joined by or, the verb agrees with the last noun.

    She or I run every day.
    Potatoes, pasta, or rice goes well with grilled chicken. (last noun: rice)

  3. Collective nouns (team, couple, staff, etc.) take a singular verb.

    The football team is practicing night and day for the Super Bowl.
    Boston’s school committee disagrees about what to cut from the school budget.

  4. Connectives, phrases such as combined with, coupled with, accompanied by, added to, along with, together with, and as well as, do not change the number of the subject. These phrases are usually set off with commas.

    Oil, as well as gas, is a popular heating choice.
    Peanut butter combined with bread and jelly is a tasty snack.
    (Here, the peanut butter, bread, and jelly are one unit, a sandwich, so no commas are needed and we keep the singular verb.)

  5. Collecting noun phrases (a bunch of, a group of, a set of, etc.) take a singular verb.

    A set of 12 dishes is all you need for the dinner party.

  6. “Each” takes a singular verb.

    Each boy is excited about the meet; each is well prepared.

  7.  “None” takes a singular verb if what it refers to is singular and a plural verb if its referent is plural.

    None of the book is reproducible without permission.
    None of the peas are left on Sean’s plate. (“peas” is the referent and is plural) 

  8. With fractions, the verb agrees with the whole.

    One-fourth of the books are gone. (“books” is a plural noun)
    One-fourth of the sand is white. (“sand” is a singular noun)

  9. With money, if the amount is specific, use a singular verb; if the amount is vague, use a plural verb.

    Within a year, $5 million was spent on building a new factory, and millions more were spent on training future factory workers. (“$5 million” is a specific amount. Therefore the verb is singular.)
    Funds are allocated each year to help medical research. (“Funds” is a vague term rather than a specific amount. Therefore, the verb is plural.)

  10. The phrase “more than one” takes a singular verb.

    More than one box is sitting in the hallway.
    More than one car was involved in the race.


*About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers.