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Subject-Verb Agreement Study Guide

Introduction

Even advanced writers can make mistakes with subject-verb agreement. Here is a review of the building block concepts to improve your subject-verb agreement usage. We'll start with the most basic concept: what is a sentence?

What is a sentence?

Sentences express a complete thought. In order to successfully write a sentence, you must supply a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun or a noun phrase-the person(s), place(s), or thing(s) the sentence is about. The verb describes what the subject does. So, the simplest version of a sentence may look like this:

I run.

In this sentence, I is the subject, and run is the verb. It's only two words, but it is a complete sentence.

To give a slightly more complex example, look at this sentence:

The children jumped into the swimming pool.

In this sentence, children is the subject, and jumped is the verb. Because the children are jumping into something, we also have an object: swimming pool. In order to satisfy the sentence grammatically, we must include all these other words-the, an article; and into, a preposition. But don't let these extra words confuse you: the heart of the sentence is still the subject and the verb.

What are verb tenses?

All verbs have a root form, called the "infinitive." A few examples are "to write," "to run," "to study," "to be." Verbs, you must remember, describe states of being, and actions can happen in three different "tenses": A) past (before the present moment), B) present (right now), or future (beyond the present moment).

What is conjugation?

Now, when you write sentences, you conjugate verbs, and when verbs are conjugated correctly, we say that they "agree." You may not know you are doing that, but you are! Verb conjugation means to align the verb with a subject. The way in which you conjugate the verb depends on three things: whether or not you are speaking in the first person (I/we), second person (you), or third person (he/she/they); whether or not your subject is single (I/he/she/you) or plural (we/they/you); and whether or not you want to use the past, present, or future tense.

For example, let's look at our two above sentences:

I run.

This sentence is in first person ("I") singular ("I"), and it is in present tense. It is in present tense because "run" is the first-person singular conjugation of the infinitive verb "to run."

The children jumped into the swimming pool.

This sentence is in third person ("the children" refers to many children, the pronoun of which is "they") plural (again, there are "many" children, not a single "child"), and it is in past tense. The reason it is in past tense is because "jumped" is the third-person plural conjugation of the infinitive verb "to jump."

When you are writing, every verb needs to be conjugated correctly. You would never write "I is" because the correct conjugation of the verb "to be" in first-person singular present tense is "I am." Same with "she run"-the proper conjugation in the third-person singular present tense is "she runs." When verbs are correctly conjugated, we say that verb "agrees" with the subject.

Here's how the verb "to run" looks when conjugated in the present tense:

Past
1st person I run
2nd person You (sin.) run
3rd person He/She/It runs
1st person We run
2nd person You (pl.) run
3rd person They run

How many verb tenses are there?

So, getting subjects and verbs to agree is really easy, right? After all, the only tenses we have to worry about are past, present, and future, right?

Unfortunately, no. The English language has up to 30 (30!) different verb tenses. Luckily, understanding the 6 basic ones can allow you to recreate any reality of time. Here they are. 3 of them you already know:

Simple Present: They walk.

Simple Past: They walked.

Future: They will walk.

And three of them you probably recognize:

Present Perfect: They have walked.

Past Perfect: They had walked.

Future Perfect: They will have walked.

And here's a look at them in a convenient table, using the verb "to write":

Past Present Future Past Perfect Present Perfect Future Perfect
I wrote write will write had written have written will have written
You (sin.) wrote write will write had written have written will have written
He/She/It wrote writes will write had written has written will have written
We wrote write will write had written have written will have written
You (pl.) wrote write will write had written have written will have written
They wrote write will write had written have written will have written

Practice Exercises

Exercise #1
Exercise #2

Resources

1. If you want to get help learning the particulars of how to make your subjects and verbs agree in these tenses, check out this page on the Purdue OWL.

2. If you want to download a ton of excellent verb conjugations worksheets, click here. And when you complete them, feel free to bring them into the LEC for review.

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