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 who or what the sentence is about— a noun, 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.
EXAMPLEThe dog is small.
But some subjects are less concrete, and an abstract concept might very well be the subject of a sentence.
EXAMPLEHappiness is an important part of psychological well-being.
Just about anything can end up as the subject of a sentence. You can even have a compound subject, which is when more than one noun or pronoun serves as a subject.
EXAMPLEIn the sentence "The dog and cat are friends," both the dog and cat are the subjects.
You might even have a sentence where the subject is a singular indefinite pronoun.
EXAMPLEIn the sentence "Nobody knows how the dog and cat became friends," "nobody" is the subject.
You can also have a sentence with plural indefinite pronouns.
EXAMPLEBoth of them like to nap.
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 second sentence above. Likewise, plural indefinite pronouns will have plural verbs, such as "like" in the third 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.
What about the relationship between these two parts of a sentence? You know that the verb is the word that describes an 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:
But this isn’t always the way sentences look. Sometimes, the verb comes first.
EXAMPLEOn the boy's plate were (verb) the pancakes (subject).
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.
EXAMPLEMy mom and I (subject) are going (verb) to the store.
Even if the order isn’t what you expect, remember that to define a subject or subjects, always ask who or what is doing the action.
Now you can apply this to some more complicated sentences.
The boy and Susan were both excited to eat the pancakes. The pancakes that Susan and the boy ate at the restaurant were delicious. Susan and the boy, when they thought about it later in the day, were glad they had eaten breakfast together.
In the first sentence, the boy and Susan are both doing the action— eating pancakes. Thus, the first 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.
EXAMPLEIn the sentence “The elephants jumps,” it just wouldn’t make sense for "elephants" (the subject) to be plural unless the verb (to jump) were plural as well. That means it shouldn’t have that "s" at the end.
Most of the time, plural nouns that are subjects have an “s” at the end of the word. Some, however, have an irregular form.
EXAMPLE"Child" would become "children" when it’s plural, not "childs."
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.
EXAMPLEIn the sentence "The cats jump for the toy," the words "cats jump" agree and are both plural.
The same rule about agreement is true for which person a sentence is in.
EXAMPLEIn the sentence "I run," the subject and verb are both in first person, and in the sentence "The mouse runs," both are in third person.
4a. Irregular Verbs
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.
EXAMPLEThe verb "to be" doesn’t act the same as the other verbs do when plural. The sentence "The mouse is happy" becomes "The mice are happy" when the subject and verb are pluralized.
4b. Compound Subjects
When there are multiple subjects in a sentence, they often act as a compound subject.
EXAMPLEIn the sentence "The cats and the mouse share dinner," "cats" is plural and "mouse" is singular. But they’re all sharing dinner, so this is a compound subject, and the verb "to share" needs to agree.
EXAMPLEThe sentence "Marie and John are running away" contains two singular subjects that are joined by "and." This creates a plural compound subject, which is why we use "are" instead of "is."
Keep in mind, though, that not all compound subjects are plural.
EXAMPLEThe sentence "Either Marie or John are running away" is incorrect because the word that connects the nouns is "or," not "and." When "or" is used, each of the connected nouns is treated as a singular subject (i.e., there's only one subject, either Marie or John). Therefore, the verb should be in singular form: "Either Marie or John is running away."
4c. Collective Nouns and Indefinite Pronouns
Another special situation involves collective nouns, or "group subjects."
EXAMPLEThe sentence "The family enter the restaurant" is actually incorrect. Even though "the family" no doubt includes more than one member, the collective noun ("family") that is the subject of this sentence, is singular. The verb, therefore, should be in singular form: "The family enters the restaurant."
EXAMPLEThe sentence "One of the teams are cheating" is incorrect. The subject is found in the opening phrase: "One of the teams." The subject of this sentence is "one," which is singular. The sentence should instead read, "One of the teams is cheating."
The sentence above may sound incorrect because of the proximity of "teams" (plural noun) to "is" (singular verb). Remember that "teams" is not the subject of the sentence: The subject of this sentence is "one," which is singular. The verb, therefore, must be in singular form.
The use of indefinite pronouns can also lead to problems in subject-verb agreement.
EXAMPLEThe sentence "Everyone love Popsicles" is incorrect. The pronoun that is the subject of this sentence ("everyone") may seem to be plural, but it is not. Although it is written as one word, its meaning is "every one"— and "one" is singular. The sentence should instead read, "Everyone loves Popsicles."
EXAMPLEThe sentence "Many disagrees with me about dinner etiquette" is incorrect because the pronoun that is the subject of this sentence ("many") is plural. The verb form must be plural to match it: "Many disagree with me about dinner etiquette."
4d. Separated Subjects and Verbs
Even if there are words, phrases, or clauses separating the subject and verb, you still need to make sure that subject and verb agree.
EXAMPLEThe sentence "The boy, along with his parents, play in the yard" may seem correct at first glance because the subject and verb are separated by the clause "along with his parents." However, the subject ("boy") is singular, so the verb must be written in singular form: "The boy, along with his parents, plays in the yard."
EXAMPLEThe sentence "All of the cats in the house hide under the bed" is correct because "cats" (the subject) and "hide" (the verb) are both plural.