What are the two types of subject-verb agreement in English?

This is the second of four chapters about Subject-Verb Agreement. To complete this reader, read each chapter carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.   

– Describe the two relevant types of agreement

– Provide examples of subject-verb agreement for person

– Provide examples of subject-verb agreement for number

Chapter 2

Now that you understand what grammatical agreement is and have some idea of the relationship between subjects and verbs, it’s important to understand that there are two different types of agreement between subjects and verbs to watch out for. Once you can recognise these two types, you can then begin to accurately troubleshoot a variety of subject-verb agreement errors. Not only will understanding this improve your knowledge of grammar, but it should also help you to better identify and correct such errors in your own work.

The two types of agreement between subjects and verbs, are grammatical person and grammatical number. The first type, person, occurs when the subject and the verb agree in a way that’s determined by the type of pronoun being used as the subject. Whether the subject is first-, second- or third-person determines how the verb will be formed (agree), as is shown in the examples below. In these examples, we can see that the first-, second- and third-person pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’ affect the verb ‘be’ in three different ways:

Subject-Verb Agreement 2.1 Subject, Verb and Complement

However, almost all other verbs in English have identical first- and second-person inflection and vary only in the third-person form, as is shown with the regular verb ‘understand’ in the phrase ‘she understands what I mean’:    

Subject-Verb Agreement 2.2 Subject, Verb and Object

The only type of verbs that are not affected in this way by grammatical person are modal verbs such as ‘can’, ‘should’ and ‘may’, which remain the same regardless of which pronoun they relate to:

Subject-Verb Agreement 2.3 Subject, Verb and Object

The second and most common type of subject-verb agreement relates to grammatical number, which is concerned with whether the subject is singular or plural. Like grammatical person, grammatical number also affects pronouns. As can be seen in the examples below, although we are still using the first-, second- and third-person pronouns, first-person ‘we’ and third-person ‘they’ now require agreement for number instead of person as they are plural and not singular:

Subject-Verb Agreement 2.4 Subject, Verb and Complement
Subject-Verb Agreement 2.5 Subject, Verb and Object

Of course, it’s not only pronouns that verbs agree with. Almost all noun phrases in English can be either singular or plural, and the verbs that agree with these nouns must always be correctly formed. The general rule in English then is that if a subject is singular, then its verb must be in its singular form also. Verbs become plural, on the other hand, when they agree with a plural subject, as is shown in the following tables:

Subject-Verb Agreement 2.6 Singular Subject and Singular Verb
Subject-Verb Agreement 2.7 Plural Subject and Plural Verb

Generally then, third-person singular verbs in the present tense end in the inflectional affix –s, such as ‘barks’. However, although we have provided two clear and simple rules, because there are so many different types of noun in the English language, because verbs can be separated from their nouns by other phrases, and because noun phrases can be conjoined with words such as ‘either’ or isolated by words such as ‘each’, there is a lot of variation in the language and room for error. Chapter  3 and Chapter 4 therefore deal with some common and difficult subject-verb agreement errors that you should learn to recognise and avoid. 

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