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Do Your Subjects and Verbs Agree?

Lately the most common error I see in the writing samples of smart, successful people is a lack of subject-verb agreement. People are using singular verbs with plural subjects, and plural verbs with singular subjects. Errors are popping up everywhere.

For example, a subject-verb error hurts this sentence:

The Board of Directors meet monthly.

Explanation of the error: Board is a singular subject; it requires a singular verb, meets: The Board meets monthly.

If you changed the sentence to focus on the Board members, the plural verb meet would be correct:

The members of the Board of Directors meet monthly.

A subject-verb error ruins this sentence too:

Options regarding the ways to handle the risk was discussed.

Explanation of the error: The plural subject options requires a plural verb, were discussed: Options were discussed. . . .

Test yourself: Can you find errors in the examples below?

1. I want to ensure that my grammar and punctuation is correct in every document I send out.

2. Each of the samples were labeled before shipment.

3. Here’s three follow-up questions for you.

4. The need to improve our processes are important to everyone involved.

5. Testing showed that the internal temperature of these systems settle below the temperature displayed on the gauges.

6. Clear acceptance criteria needs to be established.

7. Proper segregation of duties do not exist between the employee performing the payroll reconciliation and the individual who updates the employee master list.

8. The approval and the modification agreement is sent to Loan Servicing.

9. There is not any substantial changes in any of the financial sections of this narrative.

10. We have not determined whether Mr. Frye’s version of the events are accurate.


Every sentence had an error. Here are the correct subject-verb combinations:

1. grammar and punctuation are

2. Each . . . was labeled

3. Here are three

4. The need . . . is

5. temperature . . . settles

6. criteria need (Grammar sticklers view the word criteria as plural.)

7. segregation . . . does

8. approval and the modification agreement are

9. There are not any substantial changes

10. version . . . is

My Microsoft grammar and spelling checker was able to identify and correct all the errors except Numbers 1, 5, and 6. In Number 1, I am surprised Microsoft did not recognize the plural subject “grammar and punctuation.” In Number 5, the subject temperature is followed by a prepositional phrase, “of these systems,” which makes it challenging to identify the simple subject. In Number 6, my grammar and spelling checker must have loosened up about criteria and regarded it as singular.

The key to matching subjects and verbs is to recognize the simple subject, that is, the subject without any modifying phrases. For instance, in these sentences, ignore the words I have crossed out:

The key to matching subjects and verbs is to recognize the simple subject.

The need to balance our priorities and activities has become more pressing.

The demand for both skilled workers and day laborers increases daily.

We are not certain whether her description of the individuals in her classes is accurate.

How easily did you recognize the errors in subject-verb agreement? I welcome your comments and questions.



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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

14 comments on “Do Your Subjects and Verbs Agree?”

  • I was tripped up on #5 so much that I became an acrobat by the time I “settled” on the incorrect tense. I was surprised, however, that I erred on #2 identifying “samples” (were)as singular instead of focusing on “each” (is). But, that’s what makes language fun. It is so very dynamic–and tricky!

  • I caught these, but I knew what I was looking for! I think people trip up a lot in speech, but in writing they should take the time to think about it a little more. Also, in Britain at least, the word audience, like family or team, can be considered a plural noun, so they use a plural verb. It used to irritate me when I lived there. Now that we communicate globally so often, I see different usages spreading among all English speakers. Maybe in the US we’ll eventually add the U to color and honor and favor!

  • Hi, Marlene. You are not alone! “Settle” in Number 5 fools many people. I have been sharing that example in business writing classes at a particular company since I saw it in a class participant’s writing sample there. Nearly everyone misses it.

    Number 2 is another great challenge.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • Hi, Val. Thank you for your comment on “audience.” I just checked it in my “Gregg Reference Manual,” and you are correct. It is a collective noun–even in the United States. That means the writer can choose to use a plural verb–for example, “are”–to emphasize that the audience is made up of individuals. I was thinking of it as one group, but the members of the group are acting alone.

    I have changed that example from “audience” to “Board of Directors.”

    Thanks for keeping me honest–and correct!


  • Hi Lynn,

    I love that I can identify a prepositional phrase in a sentence, and immediately know it has no part in the subject-verb agreement exercise. Thank you for showing us examples of other modifying phrases that can trip us up.

  • I got all of them right yaaaayyy! On another note a friend and I were arguing over whether it was ok to start a sentence with “am” instead of “I am”. Her argument is since the only acceptable subject for “am” is “I”; then omitting the subject should not affect the sentence since it can only have one meaning. An argument she supports by referencing foreign languages like Spanish or French where one may use the correct form of the verb without the subject eg Yo soy professora or soy professora. Both expressions mean I am a teacher. What do you think?

  • I had to read Number 5 a couple of times, but did get it in the end. I have to admit 6 stumped me and still feels a little stilted. Otherwise I got the rest right. I knew more than I thought! Thanks for another great article.

  • Hello, Yvie. Thanks for the interesting question. In English, people do sometimes omit the subject “I” in informal communication. For example, “Am waiting for you in the lobby” or “Can’t wait to see you!”

    However, in normal professional messages (and even person ones), we nearly always use the subject. It’s use is standard English.

    Your friend can leave out the subject, but her communications will be considered informal–not professional.


  • Suze, I agree that some of these sentences require close scrutiny. If they were written more simply, we would not have to worry as much about subject-verb agreement.

    Thanks for your comment and compliment.


  • Hi Lynn,

    I have a question pertaining to sentence 5. I thought that the verb “settle” would be in past tense since “Testing showed that” shows that the action happened in the past.

    Grateful if you could please advise me.


  • Good point, Vimal. Perhaps I should have written “testing shows” rather than “showed.” That might be a better structure.

    However, I do think it is correct to say “Testing showed that the temperature settles,” assuming that whatever the testing showed (in this case the temperature settling) is still true.


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