Part Two of Why Can’t We All Just Get Along- A Review of Subject-Verb Agreement with Exercises walks you and your students through more sticky situations when it comes to correct subject-verb agreement.
Keep reading to make sure your students have it all straight.
Be Very Clear about Subject- Verb Agreement
Compound subjects are those that contain two separate subjects and are joined with and to form a plural subject. Either or both of the subjects can be singular, but the resulting compound subject is plural.
- My sister and I live in the same apartment.
- My sisters and I live in the same apartment.
Because these compound subjects are plural, they take a plural verb. Make sure your students understand that phrases like as well as, together with, and along with are NOT the same as and. Although they may seem to link two different subjects, they do not create a compound subject. Take the following sentence as an example.
- Michael, as well as his brother, attends the University of Delaware.
Michael is the subject of the sentence. His brother is not part of the subject. As a result, the verb is in its singular form. Here is another example.
- Snow White, along with the seven dwarves, hates the evil queen.
Again, the subject is singular and therefore takes a singular verb.
Similarly, the words or, either, and neither may seem to refer to two things, but they also take a singular verb when the subjects they connect are both singular.
- Either Michael or David studies Spanish in school.
These words can also be used to connect plural subjects or one singular subject and one plural subject. When they connect both singular and plural subjects, the verb agrees with whatever subject is closest to it. As a result, both of the following sentences have correct subject-verb agreement.
- Either Becky or her sisters take care of the neighbor’s dog.
- Either her sisters or Becky takes care of the neighbor’s dog.
Even though the second sentence is grammatical, it sounds strange even to native speakers. So when possible, place the plural subject closer to the verb as in the former sentence.
More likely than not, your students will have to memorize these phrases that seem to compound the subject of a sentence but do not.
Practice: To practice forming grammatical sentences with connected subjects and compound subjects, write several subjects on index cards. Each card should have one subject. In a separate pile, write several connectors each on their own index card. Have students take turns drawing two subject and one connector cards. They must then make a grammatical sentence with correct subject-verb agreement using those three words.
Another point with which many ESL students struggle is the use of here and there as the subject of a sentence. In fact, these words are never the subject of a sentence, even if they are the only words which appear before the verb.
- There is one apple in the refrigerator.
- Here are the papers that you must fill out.
In each of these sentences, the subject appears after the verb: the apple and the papers. As a result, the verb agrees with that subject, not here or there. This type of sentence is called an expletive construction.
Practice: Using the subject cards you used in the previous exercise, have students choose one subject card on their turn. He or she must then make a sentence starting with either here or there and use the phrase on their card as the subject of their sentence.
Count Nouns and Noncount Nouns
Count nouns are typical nouns that can be counted. Most nouns fall into this category. Noncount nouns, on the other hand, are less common and can be trickier when it comes to subject-verb agreement. Noncount nouns are those which cannot be counted or identified in number: rice, furniture, paper, homework, coffee, snow, and sand. In English, you cannot talk about two rices or eight furnitures. These nouns take a singular verb unless they are used with a quantifier.
- Sand feels rough on your feet.
- Several grains of sand feel uncomfortable in your clothes.
In the second sentence, the word “grains” is used as a quantifier and becomes the subject of the sentence. Since grains is plural, the sentence takes a plural verb. Different noncount nouns take different quantifiers: grains of rice, pieces of furniture, cups of coffee, etc.
Practice: Review with your students which quantifiers go with various noncount nouns. Then have each person write two sentences for each of several noncount nouns: one with a quantifier and one without. Sentences without quantifiers should take singular verbs. Sentences with quantifiers may take singular or plural verbs depending on the sentence.
Collective nouns are tricky. Collective nouns are singular nouns which refer to a group of people or objects. They include crowd, herd, team, and audience. Though the collective noun itself is singular, the word represents several objects in one group and can therefore cause confusion for ESL students when it comes to verb agreement. For example, crowd is a singular noun which refers to many people in one place. Similarly, a pack is a singular noun which refers to several dogs in one group. Take note that collective nouns take the singular form of the verb in the sentence.
- The pack is drawing near.
- The team takes its losses hard.
Help your students understand that these nouns are singular items which by definition contain several members. The nouns themselves, however, are singular.
Practice: Give your students a list of several collective nouns. Have students work with a partner to determine another way of communicating that idea without using the collective noun. For example, you could express the idea of team by saying the players on the New York Yankees. Then have the pairs work together to write two sentences for each collective noun, one using the collective noun and taking the singular form of the verb and the other using the substitute words using the plural form of the verb. Encourage students to use a dictionary as needed throughout the activity.
On the surface, subject-verb agreement seems so simple. Singular nouns take singular verbs. Plural nouns take plural verbs. Unfortunately, the more you delve into the English language, the more complicated subject-verb agreement can become. Some singular subjects appear plural while some plural subjects appear singular. These not so typical subjects can cause confusion for your ESL students. If you walk your students through each of these types of subjects that they might encounter in English and the appropriate verbs to accompany them in a sentence, they are sure to find success.