Instructional Systems
Traditional English Grammar

Chapter Three: Agreement, Reference, and Case

Some of the most serious and also the most frequently encountered errors in student writing occur because of faulty subject-verb or pronoun-antecedent agreement, weak or vague pronoun reference, or incorrect use of case forms.

The previous two chapters covered parts of speech and sentence parts with some thoroughness. This chapter will concentrate on some of the potential errors that come about through lack of grammatical agreement among sentence parts and through using incorrect forms of certain words.




To agree means to be in unison, harmony, or accord. Therefore, when we say that a verb must agree with its subject, we mean that a subject must be like its verb in as many respects as possible. Specifically, a subject must agree with its verb in person (first, second, and third) and in number (singular or plural). Agreement errors usually occur when a student writer is confused about the person or number of the subject because of other words intervening or because he makes the verb agree, not with the grammatical form of a subject, but with its meaning.



Thus, it would seem that the first step in determining agreement would be to find the subject and determine whether it is singular or plural.

One cause of confusion is that nouns and verbs usually form their plurals in opposite ways. With few exceptions nouns form their plurals by -s, -es, -ies: desk, desks; glass, glasses; lady, ladies. Verbs on the other hand usually add an -s in the third person singular of the present tense: he talks, they talk; she screams, the girls scream.



A verb must also agree with its subject in person as well as number. When you find the person or thing about which the verb makes a statement, you have found the subject. It will always be a noun or noun equivalent (a pronoun or a word or group of words used as a noun). If the subject is a first person pronoun (speaker) or a second person pronoun (spoken to) or a third person pronoun or a noun (spoken about), the verb must agree in form to that person.

Our girls' basketball team plays tougher opponents every year.

(Who plays? Team plays; spoken about: third person singular.)


They argue too loudly.

(Who argues? They argue; spoken about: third person plural.)


I agree to your demands.

 (Who agrees? I agree; speaker: first person singular.)


Will you agree to our demands? 

(Who will agree? You will; spoken to: second person, singular or plural.)


Common Subject-verb Agreement Problems: (Marking Symbol SV)

Here are some frequently encountered situations that cause subject-verb problems.


1. Intervening Phrases:

The number of the subject is not usually changed by words or phrases coming between the subject and the verb.


I, together with Homer and Prunella Bliggens, am going to see The Fantasticks.

You, as well as your brother and me, are invited.



A fraction of a percentage can be singular or plural depending on how it is used: If a fraction or a percentage is followed by a phrase, the number of the noun in the phrase determines the number of the verb.


Twenty-five percent of the loan was re-invested.

(Loan is singular; the verb is singular.)


A third of the men are employed.

(Men is plural.)


Some, all, or most can be singular or plural, depending on the way they are used. They are singular when they refer to a quantity of something. They are plural when they refer to a number of things. Again, it is the noun in the intervening phrase that determines the number of the verb.


Some of the novel is exciting.

Some of the novels are exciting.

Most of the money is missing.

Most of the coins are missing.


2. Singular Indefinite Pronouns:


Singular indefinite pronouns require singular verbs. The following pronouns are usually singular: each, either, neither, one, someone, no one, everyone, anybody, nobody, somebody, everybody, everything, anything, nothing, and something. (Note: all of the one, thing, and body compounds are singular.)


Nobody was home when Murgatroid entered the house.

 Somebody is responsible for the breakdown in communications.

Everyone in the neighborhood loves Warty Bliggins.

Each of the students recites his own poetry.


3. Plural Indefinite Pronouns.-

Both, few, many, several, and others are some of the plural indefinite pronouns.

Many try; several fail; others never participate.


4. Singular Nouns Plural in Form.,

Nouns plural inform but singular in meaning, take a singular verb. The following words are almost always used with singular verbs: physics, economics, mathematics, news, politics, whereabouts, mechanics, ethics, mumps and stamina.


Mathematics is the study of number and space concepts.

Mumps is a dangerous disease for adults.


5 . Subjects Modified by Numbers; Mathematical Formulas:

When a noun subject is modified by a numerical adjective (such as a cardinal number) it usually takes a singular verb.

 Ten dollars was all that Prunella could afford.

 Twelve miles is too far for Hortense to jog.

 "Seven from ten equals three," said the frog.

 Three fourths is Osgood's share.



 Ten yards is a first down.

BUT: The last ten yards are the toughest.

Five minutes is enough time to decide.

BUT: Those first five minutes are important.


6. Titles as Subjects:

A title of a play, painting, book, film, musical composition or other such work is singular.

The Fantasticks is a play that can be called a parable of love.

The Rievers is a comic novel by William Faulkner.

Crime and Punishment is my favorite Russian novel.


7. Plurals of Foreign Origin:

Take special care with the plurals of nouns of foreign origin.











data (often singular)








8. Collective Nouns:

Collective nouns usually take singular verbs. Some common collective nouns are assembly, army, clergy, committee, company, couple, crew, crowd, family, flock, group, herd, jury, mob, multitude, orchestra, pair, personnel, squad, team, union. These collective nouns take a singular verb and singular pronouns when the "collection" is thought of as a unit. In rare instances they take a plural verb and plural pronouns when the members of the group are regarded as individuals acting separately.

 The Baggins family [unit] was well respected in Hobbitown.

The Baggins family [individuals] were seated around the table.

ALSO CORRECT: The Baggins family was seated around the table.


9. Substitute Subjects (Expletives There and Here):

There and here are not subjects and cannot determine person or number. Take special care with any sentence which has its subject after the verb.


There are "sock hops" every Saturday night at the Mudville Civic Center.

Here are the tickets for the Crisco Corners Hang Gliders' Club dinner.


10. IT as a Subject. The expletive or impersonal use of it always takes a singular verb.

 It is eight more miles to Louisville.

 It was Homer and Prunella who won the dance contest.


11. Compound Subjects.,

Compound subjects joined by and ordinarily require a plural verb. What she does and where she goes are none of Homer's business. Mugwert and Osgood were always late to their eight o'clock class.


When two nouns or pronouns form a single thought, have a closely related meaning, or mean one thing or one person, a singular verb is generally used.

 Chicken and dumplings is Dilworth's favorite dish.

The secretary and treasurer is Jane Doe.

My trusted friend and counselor never loses his temper.


When each or every precedes two or more singular subjects joined by and, the verb is singular.

 Every boy and girl in the auditorium screams when Wilberforce sings.

Each home and office has a Fold -a-Matic Giz Whiz.


12. Compound Subjects with or, nor.

Singular subjects joined by or, nor, either . . . or, neither . . . nor usually take a singular verb.


Neither Tom nor Jerry is able to attend the cartoon festival.

Right or wrong makes little difference to Dick Dastard.


However, when a singular subject and a plural subject are joined by or, nor, either . . . or, neither. . .nor, the subject closer to the verb determines its number and person.

 Either they or I am to accept the trophy.

Neither the cow nor the calves have been watered.


13. Singular Subject, Plural Subjective Complement (and Vice Versa):

A verb does not agree with a subjective complement (predicate nominative). It agrees with the

subject of the sentence.

 Coffee and dessert are the most enjoyable part of the meal.

The most enjoyable part of the meal is coffee and dessert.


Igor's favorite fruit is prunes.

Prunes are Igor's favorite fruit.


14. Relative Pronouns:

A relative pronoun (who, which, that) is singular or plural according to the antecedent (the word which the pronoun replaces).


One of the tires which were just bought was slashed. (Note here that was slashed agrees with one verb and subject of the independent clause; were agrees with which, a plural pronoun because its antecedent tires is plural.)


The tire which was just bought was slashed. (Here which is singular because tire is singular.) Melrose is one of the players who have gained a thousand yards. (who is plural because players is plural; thus the verb, have, is plural.)


Sometimes, however, logic dictates that the antecedent of a relative pronoun is not the nearest noun but a previously mentioned indefinite pronoun:


Melrose is the only one of the players who has gained a thousand yards.


It is at this point, the agreement of relative pronoun subjects with their verbs, that the concept of agreement crosses two lines-subject-verb agreement and pronoun-antecedent agreement. The next section takes up the topic of pronoun-antecedent agreement.


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