5 Common Subject-Verb Agreement Mistakes of ESL Students

Mark Nichol
It’s not always easy to get the verb and the subject to agree in terms of number. Even native speakers sometimes get that wrong.

Writers for whom English is not their first language find subject-verb agreement (and any noun-verb agreement) a challenge when learning the language. Besides the difficulties in reconciling agreement depending on whether one is using singular or plural nouns and pronouns, and the added complexities of person (first person, second person, and third person) and tense (past, present, and so on), the five issues discussed below can lead to confusion and error.

1. Collective Nouns

Collective nouns such as crowd and herd refer to a collection of multiple entities that (usually) acts as a single entity, but this fact may be lost on ESL writers, as in this erroneous construction:

The crowd are becoming increasingly unruly by the moment.

Individual members of the crowd are contributing to the unrest, and not all the people may be reacting in the same way, but in the context of the sentence, “the crowd” refers to a single entity, and the sentence should be written, “The crowd is becoming increasingly unruly by the moment.”

This rule is complicated by the fact that in some contexts, a reference to a collective may emphasize individual members, as in “The staff are divided in their opinion about the new office policy,” but this ambiguity is best resolved by revising the sentence to clarify that the focus is on the lack of consensus among the staff: “Members of the staff are divided in their opinion about the new office policy,” in which the key terms are members and are, not staff and are.

Also, significantly, note that American English differs from British English in this respect; in the latter form of the language, collective nouns often take a plural verb whether the emphasis appears to be the constituent members of the team or the single entity of the team (for example, “The team are lining up on the sidelines” and “The team are back in first place”).

2. Interruptive Prepositional Phrases

ESL writers also are understandably confused when a prepositional phrase comes between a noun and a verb, as shown here:

The manner in which you spoke to those people are disrespectful.

In the preceding sentence, the writer may assume that people and the verb that follows it must agree, but the verb is associated not with the immediately preceding noun but with the subject noun, manner, so because manner is singular, so must is be. To explain another way, the phrase “in which you spoke to those people” is irrelevant to the sentence’s subject-verb agreement; the root statement, “The [your] manner are disrespectful,” should read, “The [your] manner is disrespectful.”

3. Summation Plurals

A summation plural is a word such as scissors that is plural in construction but singular in meaning, which is followed by an incorrect verb form here:

The scissors is in the top drawer.

ESL writers may assume that because scissors refers to what is functionally understood to be a single object, the following verb must be singular. However, scissors, like eyeglasses, tights, and other objects represented by summation plurals, technically consists of—or, in the case of tights, originally consisted of—two parts, so the object is grammatically treated in plural form: “The scissors are in the top drawer.”

4. Statistical Proportion

One usage that is confusing to many native speakers and writers of English as well as to ESL writers is when, for example, the writer refers to a statistical proportion such as “one out of four” or “one in four,” as in this incorrect example:

One in four organizations report using this type of software.

Writers often assume that the verb should agree with organizations, but the subject is one (with the implied subject “one organization”), so the sentence should read, “One in four organizations reports using this type of software.” This error is common because although the number of organizations in the study is greater than four, and the sentence means that for every four organizations, one of them used the software, writers do not recognize that the sentence should be read literally. (Essentially, it expresses that statistically, among every four organizations, one reports using this type of software.) In addition, if any other number is substituted for one, report is correct, and many people do not recognize the subtle distinction.

5. Neither and Either, and Subjects with Nor and Or

Neither and either, when used as pronouns, imply that two entities are being discussed, but the words represent one entity at a time, a fact not recognized in this erroneous sentence:

Neither were very good.

In this reference to the quality of two of something (for example, meals or movies), although the meaning imparted is that the writer was disappointed in both things, each thing is being considered on its own (“This wasn’t very good, and that wasn’t very good”), so the correct wording is “Neither was very good.”

When one writes “John and Mary were at school today” or “John and his sisters were at school today,” the correct verb is unambiguous. But when one introduces, in a similar sentence, neither or either as a conjunction (rather than as a pronoun) associated with nor or or used in place of and, the rules change. Note the error here:

Neither John nor Mary were at school today.

The subject is “John nor Mary,” but because nor acts to distinguish John and Mary as individuals (as opposed to and, which links them as a duo), the verb is formed on the assumption that the reference is to John as an individual and Mary as an individual, so the correct form is “Neither John nor Mary was at school today.” (In other words, “John was not at school today, and Mary was not at school today.”)

However, if the second element of the subject is plural, the verb should also be plural (“Neither John nor his sisters were at school today”), while if the first element is plural but the second is singular, the verb is singular (“Neither John’s sisters nor John was at school today”). The latter construction, though correct, is awkward; an easy solution is to reverse the order of the elements and use a plural verb.

Written by Mark Nichol for EnglishClub.com
Mark Nichol is a former instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the editor of DailyWritingTips.com.
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