In any correct sentence in English, you’ll find at least two things: a subject and a verb. Those elements make up a sentence, which is defined as a group of words that expresses a complete thought and includes a subject and a verb.
A subject is the who or the what the sentence is about—a noun or pronoun, or sometimes a noun clause. In a sentence, this subject is directly connected to the verb, which is a word that defines actions or indicates a state of being.
Some subjects are physical things that a reader might be able to picture concretely.
But some subjects are less concrete, and an abstract concept might very well be the subject of a sentence.
Just about anything can end up as the subject of a sentence—car, energy, intelligence.
You can even have a compound subject, which is when more than one noun or pronoun serves as a subject.
Here, both the dog and cat are the subjects.
You might even have a sentence where the subject is a singular indefinite pronoun.
Here, nobody is the subject.
You can also have a sentence with plural indefinite pronouns.
When you have a singular indefinite pronoun as the sentence subject, the verb will also always be in the singular form, such as “knows” in the first sentence above. Likewise, plural indefinite pronouns will have plural verbs, such as “like” in the sentence above.
When you’re looking for the verb in a sentence, you’ll find that it’s often right after the noun. But this isn’t true all the time, so you’ll have to get familiar with verbs in order to spot them.
You’ve already learned about action verbs, or words that describe movement and physical being. You probably know tons of these, such as “run” and “dance.”
But verbs can also be linking words, and those kinds of verbs don’t describe movement in the same way. Linking verbs connect the subject to information about the subject, and do not convey action.
Think about the way these words work as a kind of mathematical equation. In the sentence “The day is hot,” what’s the subject? The day. And what’s the verb? “Is,” which means that the day equals hot. The linking verb is like an equal sign equating the subject with an important piece of information about that subject.
All of those “be” verbs are linking verbs, but there are others. Words such as “seems” and even “tastes” can be linking verbs.
What about the relationship between these two parts of a sentence? You know that the verb is the word that describes action or a state of being, and you know that the subject is the actor of that verb, or the thing doing the action or existing in the state of being.
Now think about how these actors and actions come together in sentences. There are a few general patterns of sentences that you’re likely to see and use:
An object is the item acted upon by the subject in the sentence. In these sentences, as in most sentences, the subject comes before the verb. But this isn’t always the way sentences look. Sometimes, the verb comes first:
Also, sometimes the subject or verb will be compound, which means that there will be more than one subject or more than one verb in their own clause together.
Even if the order isn’t what you expect, remember that a defined subject or subjects always ask who or what is doing the action.
Now you can apply this to some more complicated sentences. In the first sentence, the boy and Susan are both doing the action—eating pancakes. Thus, this sentence is an example of a compound subject:
The more complicated a sentence, the further apart the verb and subject might be, like in the second sentence.
There might even be a dependent clause between the subject and verb, like in the third sentence.
Subjects and verbs work together in a sentence, and this means that they have to agree with each other to avoid confusing readers. In other words, the tense and number need to be the same for subject and verb when the sentence is in present tense.
A subject might be singular or plural, so the verb will need to reflect the subject state.
Most of the time, plural nouns that are subjects have an “s” at the end of the word. Some, however, have an irregular form.
Assuring that you’ve got the correct number agreement is usually pretty easy, since regular verbs always end in “s” when they’re singular, as in “He jumps,” “She flies,” “He walks.” When regular verbs are plural, that “s” is gone, as in “They jump,” “Birds fly,” “People walk.”
Now you can practice identifying this agreement.
See how the words “cats jump” agree and are both plural? The same rule about agreement is true for which person a sentence is in.
But when you have irregular verbs, things get more complicated because an irregular verb is a verb that does not follow the standard pattern for verb formation. To use irregular verbs correctly, you’ll have to remember how each one agrees with its subject.
You probably already know the most common irregular verbs, such as the singular “is,” “was,” “has,” and “does,” and the plural “are,” “were,” “have,” and “do.”
Here are two sentences with an irregular verb at work:
When the number of this sentence changes, the verb “to be” doesn’t act the same as the other verbs do when plural.
In the following sentence, the irregular verb “to have” is in its singular form, but “elephants” is plural.
To fix this error, find the plural form of that irregular verb and swap it in.
Even if there are words, phrases, or clauses separating the subject and verb, you still need to make sure that subject and verb agree.
In the following sentence, the action is focused on hiding, and the cats are doing the hiding.
Do the subject and the verb match? “Cats” is plural, and so is “hide,” which means they match.
In the following sentence, “the cats” is plural and “the mouse” is singular.
But they’re all sharing dinner, so this is a compound subject, and the verb “to share” needs to agree.
In the following sentence, you’ll note that there is a dependent clause.
Thus the subject and the verb that need to be in agreement will be in the independent clause. Here, you have “cats” and “enjoy.” Do those match? Yes.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Martina Shabram.
Who or what the sentence is about.
The item acted upon by the subject in a sentence.
A word that defines actions or indicates a state of being.
A group of words that expresses a complete thought and includes a subject and a verb.
Conveys a physical action that typically involves movement.
Connects the subject to information about the subject and does not convey action.
A verb that does not follow the standard pattern for verb formation.