Lesson #179: Agreement Between Subject and Verb Form – 7 Rules to Avoid Common Mistakes

📙 ‘He and his family had been weary when they arrived the night before, and they had observed but little of the place; so that he now beheld it as a new thing.’

– Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)

Although the principle of this lesson is a simple one, namely:

✍️ RULE: A singular subject takes a singular verb, while a plural subject takes a plural verb ✍️

there are several smaller rules that help us to know when to conjugate a verb in a single or plural person to match the subject.

🤔 For example, you may have wondered whether ‘family’ is a singular or plural subject – if so, stay tuned to the end of this lesson and you will find out!

Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) tells the story of a poor man who takes a drastic decision regarding his family. He later prospers and becomes a very respectable man in a small town, but his past comes back time and again to haunt him.

Given the centrality of individuality and family life in this book, we will use passages from it to illustrate 7 rules on how to correctly align agreement between subject and verb.

📝 #1 TWO OR MORE SUBJECTS CONNECTED BY ‘AND’

When we have two or more subjects that are connected by the conjunction ‘and’, we use a plural verb.

📙 ‘ “He and she are gone into their new house to-day,” said Jopp.’

– Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (emphasis mine)

However, compound nouns are treated as a singular subject, requiring a verb-form in the singular person; notice how ‘bird and cage’ or ‘bird-cage’ in the sentence below are treated as a compound noun.

📙 ‘Nobody could tell her how the bird and cage [IT] had come there … When her husband came in she told him her solution of the bird-cage mystery …’

– Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (emphasis mine)  

Alternatively, if we are ever unsure of whether a noun is singular or plural, we could rephrase the sentence with the personal pronoun that sounds best. For example, we could say ‘Nobody could tell her how it had come there’ or ‘they are gone to their new house to-day’, substituting a personal pronoun for the named noun(s). 

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📝 #2 THE NON-INFLUENCE OF INTERVENING CLAUSES ON SUBJECT-VERB AGREEMENT

You will sometimes hear or read a sentence that includes a descriptive clause in brackets, such as ‘as well as the dread of the girl discovering our disgrace’ below:

📙 ‘These things, as well as the dread of the girl discovering our disgrace, make it necessary to act with extreme caution.’

– Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (emphasis mine)  

It is important to know that such descriptive clauses do not influence any change on the subject (‘these things’ in the sentence above), because they are not in fact a part of the subject. 

So that means that the subject continues to agree with the verb in its number (singular or plural) as if the intervening sentence didn’t exist there.

Similarly, words that are bracketed in parentheses are not part of the original subject, and can be ignored when getting the verb to agree with the subject. 

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📝 #3 ‘THERE’ AND ‘HERE’ SENTENCES

In sentences that begin with either ‘there’ or here’, the subject continues to be of paramount importance and its number decides what the verb form should be. 

‘Here is loaf of bread to eat,’ she muttered.

‘There are three children to feed after all,’ he said.

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📝 #4 TWO SUBJECTS CONNECTED WITH ‘OR, EITHER/OR, NEITHER/NOR’

When two singular subjects are connected by ‘or’, ‘either/or’, or ‘neither/nor’, they always take a singular verb-form.

📙 ‘There was neither hedge nor tree in the prospect now, the road clinging to the stubby expanse of corn-land like a strip to an undulating garment.’

– Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (emphasis mine)   

TIP: For more information on how to conjugate a verb in agreement with singular and plural nouns joined by an ‘or’, ‘either/or’, or ‘neither/nor’, check out my Lesson #158 here where I explain it in more detail. I actually used another work by Hardy to illustrate that lesson too!

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📝 #5 DESCRIBING PERIODS OF TIME, SUMS OF MONEY, AND DISTANCES AS SINGULAR UNITS

‘Two years is too long to wait to find out,’ she moaned.

When describing periods of time, sums of money, and / or measured distances, we treat them as a singular unit – thus taking a singular verb-form.

However, if the amount they refer to is described as fragmented parts of a whole unit (e.g. ‘six pounds and two pence were placed on the table’), they then take a plural verb form.

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📝 #6 SUBJECT-VERB AGREEMENT WHEN FACED WITH ‘OF’

If you find a phrase that includes ‘of’ (for example, ‘a crowd of children’, ‘a bundle of clothes’, ‘a stack of books’), be aware that the first noun before ‘of’ is the subject, and not the noun following it. 

📙 ‘Almost every Saturday they encountered each other amid the crowd of farmers which thronged about the market-place in the weekly course of their business.’

– Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (emphasis mine)   

However, when these words emphasise parts of a group or a crowd or a stack, etc., they may use adverbial phrases like ‘all of”, ‘some of’, ‘a lot of’, ‘the majority of’. In those cases, the adverbial phrases are not the subject; instead, what follows ‘of’ is the subject. Here is an example of this, with the subject and verb-form in plural-person agreement:

📙 ‘And when some of the women were a-walking home they said, “He’s a diment— he’s a chap o’ wax— he’s the best …” ‘

– Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (emphasis mine)   

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📝 #7 COLLECTIVE NOUNS SUCH AS ‘GROUP’, ‘FAMILY’, ‘AUDIENCE’, ‘SOCIETY’, ‘JURY’, ‘POPULATION’, etc.

Remember how at the start of this lesson I asked you if you knew whether ‘family’ were a singular or a plural noun?

Well, the answer to this rule is the easiest to remember – it is entirely up to the writer or speaker’s intent!

For example, in this sentence Hardy considers family to be plural, perhaps because he is describing members of the family in the plural (notice the ‘s’ at the end of Le Sueurs)

📙 ‘They were the Le Sueurs, an old family who have done great things in their time.’

– Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (emphasis mine)  

And in this sentence following, the same word ‘family’ is treated as a single unit:

📙 ‘When the outlying houses of Weydon-Priors could just be described, the family group was met by a turnip-hoer with his hoe on his shoulder, and his dinner-bag suspended from it.’

– Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (emphasis mine)  

I hope that this lesson was helpful, mainly in helping you to make sense of why the rules work as they do. Just memorising rules and not understanding them will not help much, so if you need to, review this lesson again at another time or when you find yourself wondering about subject-verb agreement works in your own work.

If you ever need help proofing your work, feel free to contact me and I will proofread it for you and include grammatical explanations on why I make any adjustments or changes, so that you keep learning even from mistakes!

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by Joyce E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2021)