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Learn how subject-verb agreement is essential to written language. Three common problems with subject-verb agreement are discussed with tips for avoiding the most common errors.

Word Order in English

Writing. It is everywhere and serves many functions in our society.

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However, the written word must follow specific guidelines in order to be effective communication. One such guideline is word order, which simply refers to the order words must fall in a sentence. Imagine that you are reading an article and you come across this sentence: ‘Important for is to order written effective be word communication.’ Does this make any sense at all? Of course not! This is because the word order is completely messed up. Reorder the words and you can clearly understand the message: ‘Word order is important for written communication to be effective.’One important aspect within word order deals with subject-verb agreement, which means the subject and main verb must always agree based on number. Remember that the subject is the main person or object doing the action, and the verb is the main action or state of being.

For example, ‘The boy runs to the street corner every morning.’ The subject is the ‘boy’ and the verb is ‘runs.’ The singular subject ‘boy’ must be followed by the singular form of the verb, which in this case is ‘runs.’ Don’t get confused and think the singular form is ‘run,’ since ‘runs’ ends in the letter ‘s.’ The singular form of ‘run’ is actually ‘runs’ because it agrees with singular subjects.

When sentences remain simple, it is usually easy to recognize and fix disagreement between subjects and verbs. You can usually just say the sentence out loud and check to see what naturally comes off your tongue. However, our language is full of many complex sentences, which may make subject-verb agreement more difficult to establish. Let’s look at some common problems with subject-verb agreement.

Inverted Word Order

The example sentences from above were in normal word order, which means the subject comes before the main verb.

One issue with agreement can be seen if the subject comes after the verb or in between two verbs. This is called inverted word order.Look at this question: ‘What is Katie doing?’ What is the subject? ‘Katie’ is the main person in this sentence. What is the action? The action is actually the verb phrase ‘is doing.

‘ The subject, Katie, comes in between these two verbs. You still have to make sure the subject agrees with the verb. Would you say ‘Katie is doing’ or ‘Katie are doing?’ ‘Katie’ is a singular subject, and you would use the first version since ‘is’ is the singular form of ‘to be.’Here is another example: ‘Up the mountain climbs the lion.’ What is the subject? The ‘lion’ is doing the action in the sentence.

What is the action? The lion ‘climbs.’ In this sentence, the subject is coming after the verb, but you still need to make them agree. The lion is singular and so uses the singular form ‘climbs.’ If the subject was changed to plural, like in ‘Up the mountain climb the lions,’ then the verb changes to the plural form ‘climb.’ The important thing to remember with inverted word order is to always find the subject and make the verb agree.

Compound Subjects

Another problem with subject-verb agreement can occur with compound subjects.

A compound subject is when a sentence has more than one noun as the subject. Look again at the example from the beginning of this lesson. ‘The boy runs to the street corner every morning.

‘ To make the subject a compound subject, put in two names. ‘Sam and Steve run to the street corner every morning.’ Who is doing the action? Both Sam and Steve are running, and so make up the compound subject.For compound subjects, you must note the connecting word in order to determine the proper way to make the verb agree. For example, in our sentence, our two subjects are connected with the word ‘and.

‘ This means we have a plural subject and therefore need the plural form ‘run.’ With a compound subject connected by the word ‘and,’ this means both people are doing the action, and so you need to use the plural form of the verb.Besides the word ‘and,’ there is another way of connecting compound subjects. Look at this sentence: ‘Sam or Steve runs to the street corner every morning.

‘ The word ‘or’ has changed the meaning of the sentence. Now we still have a compound subject, but in reality, only one of the boys is doing the running. For this, you use the noun closest to the verb for agreement, ‘Steve runs.’ We use the singular form ‘runs,’ since Steve is singular. If Steve was changed to a plural word, then we would need the plural form ‘run’.

For example, ‘Sam or the students run to the street corner every morning.’ This same rule applies if the word ‘nor’ is used instead of ‘or.’ ‘Neither Sam nor Steve runs to the street corner every morning.’The key to compound subjects is the connecting word. If subjects are connected with word ‘and,’ then use the plural form of the verb. If connected with ‘or’ or ‘nor,’ use the noun closest to the verb to establish subject-verb agreement.

Interrupting Phrases

A final issue with subject-verb agreement occurs when a sentence has an interrupting phrase. An interrupting phrase is any group of words that come in between the subject and the main verb. The biggest problem with interrupting phrases is confusing the extra words for the subject of the sentence. Let’s look at an example.’The fact that Mike and Matt were sick and missed football practice (prevent or prevents) them from being able to start in the game tonight.’ Which is it? Prevent or prevents? First, you have to identify the true subject.

Here the subject is ‘the fact,’ and all the words from ‘that’ up to ‘practice’ are the interrupting phrase. Now read the sentence skipping the interrupting phrase. ‘The fact (prevent or prevents) them from being able to start in the game tonight.’ You should be able to see that the subject is singular, and so the singular form ‘prevents’ is correct.The key with interrupting phrases is to find the true subject.

Do not let the interrupting words fool you. In fact, cross off the interrupting phrases and read the sentence with just the subject and the verb. Then you should be able to identify the correct form of the verb to agree with the true subject.

Lesson Summary

To review, word order, which is the order words must fall within a sentence, is essential for communication. One problem that occurs with word order is ensuring each sentence has subject-verb agreement, which means the subject of the sentence agrees in number with the verb.To ensure you have subject-verb agreement, beware of inverted word order.

This occurs when the subject comes after the verb or in between two verbs. No matter where the subject is, the verb must still agree in number.Also, watch out for compound subjects. This occurs when you have two subjects for one sentence. If the subjects are connected with the word ‘and,’ use the plural form of the verb to ensure agreement. If the subjects are connected with ‘or’ or ‘nor,’ then use the subject closest to the verb for agreement with the verb.

Last, don’t be fooled by interrupting phrases. Any words that come between the subject and the verb should not be considered when determining agreement. Identify the true subject and ignore the interrupted phrase.Keep these tips in mind and you’ll be sure to always have true subject-verb agreement.

Learning Outcomes

After completing the lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Recognize the importance of word order in sentences
  • Understand the concept of subject-verb agreement
  • Recognize examples of inverted word order
  • Explain how to use proper subject-verb agreement in sentences with compounds subjects or interrupting phrases

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