What is subject–verb agreement? A simple guide to getting it right

Subject–verb agreement is a grammatical stumbling block that even seasoned writers sometimes struggle to get right. Our editors address the most common errors.
What is subject–verb agreement? A simple guide to getting it right
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Subject–verb agreement, also known as ‘noun/verb agreement’, is a common grammatical stumbling block that even seasoned writers and editors sometimes struggle to get right. Ironically, those who learn English as a second language may be more familiar with the concept, while native speakers apply the principle instinctively (albeit haphazardly) without actively learning the rules.

What is subject–verb agreement?

A sentence generally has a subject (noun) doing an action (verb).

The noun can be singular (one) or plural (many), and the verb needs to change accordingly – or ‘agree with’ it.

Consider, for example:

  • The manager is calling a meeting.
  • The managers are calling a meeting.

In the example above, the singular noun (manager) agrees with the singular verb (is), while the plural noun (managers) agrees with the plural verb (are).

Collective nouns

Things get trickier with collective nouns – words like ‘team’, ‘group’, ‘family’ or ‘pair’ – which themselves are singular but represent multiple things or people (like a team of workers or a group of businesses).

The key is in the previous sentence: these collective nouns are themselves singular. As such, they must be paired with the singular verb form and the singular impersonal pronoun ‘it’ rather than the personal plural ‘they’ (see ‘Which or who?’ below).

So:

  • The team is developing a plan.
  • The group has offices all over the world.
  • The government works with its industry partners.
  • The family is gathering for its annual reunion.

To invoke the plural verb form, first find a plural noun for the individuals within the collective noun.

For example:

  • The team members were developing a plan.
  • The group’s companies have offices all over the world.
  • The government representatives work with their industry partners.
  • The family members are gathering for their annual reunion.

Mass nouns: trickier still

Mass nouns – like staff, time, equipment and data – treat the subject as a whole because it is either uncountable or can be counted only when broken down into individual units.

Like collective nouns, the mass noun itself is singular (we don’t say ‘staffs’ or ‘equipments’) and so must be paired with the singular verb form.

Consider:

  • Half the staff works according to a hybrid schedule.
  • Their time is split between home and the office.
  • Most equipment is the employer’s property.
  • Although data is limited, satisfaction rates appear high.

As with collective nouns, the plural verb form only comes into play once the mass noun is broken down into discrete or countable units.

For example:

  • Half the staff members work according to a hybrid schedule.
  • Their units of time are split between home and the office. (You could also say ‘their hours are split’.)
  • Most items of equipment are the employer’s property.
  • Although data points are limited, satisfaction rates appear high. (The singular ‘datum’ has mostly fallen out of use – see ‘Hidden plurals’ below.)

Hidden plurals

Some plurals may look singular at first blush, making it very easy to miss an error in agreement. Keep an eye out for these ‘hidden’ or irregular plurals, and pay special attention to getting the verb right.

For example:

  • criteria are / criterion is
  • memoranda are / memorandum is
  • media are / medium is
  • women are / woman is

Traditionally, ‘data’ and ‘datum’ would have fallen under this heading – datum being the singular form of the plural ‘data’ – but the modern approach treats  ‘data’ as a singular or mass noun. We recommend checking your house style guide for this one, as some industries – particularly in the scientific and medical fields – still prefer the traditional approach.

Indefinite pronouns

Generally speaking, indefinite pronouns – words like ‘anybody’, ‘someone/somebody’, ‘everybody/everyone’, ‘nothing’, ‘no-one’ and ‘nobody’ – are treated as singular.

For example:

  • Please let me know if anybody is available.
  • Is someone there?

However, in Australian English, ‘none’ is commonly treated as a plural, as endorsed by the Macquarie Dictionary:

“It is sometimes argued that none must always be singular, as in none of the team has turned up. In practice, none is often treated as plural and there is no reason to avoid doing so, as in none of them are here, none of the players have arrived.”

In these grey areas, our standard advice is to choose the clearest and most natural-sounding option, and then be consistent – maybe even note it down in your style guide for future reference. We also recommend double checking your local dictionary, as standards may differ across English variants.

Which or who? How to treat non-human objects

Although corporations may be considered ‘legal persons’, they remain non-human for grammatical purposes. This means using ‘which’ or ‘that’ rather than ‘who’, keeping in mind our earlier note on impersonal pronouns.

For example:

  • The company, which issued its report last Monday, will proceed with its strategy.

Not:

  • The company, who issued their report last Monday, will proceed with their strategy.

One last tip

Most languages (we hesitate to say ‘all’) have some form of noun/verb agreement rule, but the conventions vary, even within different forms of English. Treating collective nouns as singular is standard in Australian and American English, whereas British English is more likely to treat the government or a sporting team as a plural (‘the government have’ or ‘the team were’).

We also recommend checking your house style guide for specific guidance; for example, some organisations may use the ‘corporate we’ and prefer the plural ‘they’ instead of ‘it’.

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