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Understanding Subject-Verb Agreement

As a native Cantonese speaker, I used to find subject-verb agreement confusing. There isn’t anything similar in Chinese, so I had to work hard to learn how to use this grammatical feature. It’s very important in English and has a few strange rules, but it’s actually much simpler than it used to be. In the past, there were more verb endings than we have now. In Latin, one of the root languages of English, a different verb ending was used for every pronoun. Nowadays, we just have a few rules to learn to make our meaning clear.

First and foremost, you need to know what subjects and verbs are. A verb is a word that shows the action in a sentence. The subject is the noun that does the verb. For instance, in the sentence ‘Tom eats breakfast’, ‘Tom’ is the subject, and ‘eats’ is the verb.

In English, when the subject changes, the verb has to change to match it. In the present tense, if we see ‘I’, ‘You’, ‘We’, or ‘They’ as the subject, we will use the basic form of the verb. For example, ‘I/You/We/They watch a movie.’ However, when we see ‘He’, ‘She’, or ‘It’ as the subject, we add ‘s’, ‘es’ or ‘ies’ (depending on the word) to the verb, for instance, ‘He/She/It watches a movie.’ In Chinese, on the contrary, verbs do not change to match the subject. We use the same verb in Chinese no matter what the subject is. For example, we use the same verb when expressing ‘I watch a movie.’ and ‘She watches a movie.’ in Chinese.

This is easy to remember for many people, but there’s another way to think about it that can help some learners. For all singular subjects (nouns that refer to one person), we must add ‘s’, ‘es’ or ‘ies’ after the verb, whereas for plural subjects (nouns that refer to more than one person), we should use the basic form of the verb. BUT, and it is a big BUT, there are two special cases, which are ‘You’ and ‘I’ (You and I are special, aren’t we?). When ‘You’ and ‘I’ are the subjects, even though they refer to one person, we will use the basic form of the verb.

So when forming a simple sentence, always remember, if the subject is singular, add ‘s’, ‘es’ or ‘ies’ to the verb; if the subject is plural, do not add anything. BUT, you and I are always special.

There are a few exceptions to these rules that you can learn with practice. Here are 3 common examples:

  • Indefinite pronouns (e.g. everyone, somebody, anything) always require singular verbs (treat them like ‘he’ or ‘she’). For example, ‘Everyone loves fruit.’
  • Some words can be used with singular or plural verbs, and we choose depending on the nearest subject to the verb. Subjects joined by ‘Neither…nor’ and ‘Either…or’ both refer to pairs of things, but the verb only agrees with the nearest subject to it. For example, ‘Either my mother or my father is coming,’ and ‘Neither I nor my classmates are happy.’ Other words that follow this rule are ‘All’, ‘Any’, ‘Most’, ‘Some’, ‘…together with…’ and ‘…as well as…’
  • Collective nouns are usually treated as singular. For example, ‘The audience is clapping,’ and ‘My family is large.’ We can also treat these words as plural if we mean every member in the group, e.g. ‘My family are having fun.’ (Meaning every member of the family)


Learn more tips and tricks for grammar in i-Learner’s Advanced Grammar and Reading course. Our tutors have helped hundreds of students make sense of every aspect of English, and they’re sure to know the tools to help you.