Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part III. Grammar Rules Every Writer Needs to Know and Follow

Chapter 13. Subject-Verb Agreement

One grammar rule that absolutely can’t be broken is proper subject–verb agreement. Basically, this means that the verb form changes based on whether the subject of the sentence is singular or plural. This is nonnegotiable, as improper subject–verb agreement can actually make your writing silly and/or unintelligible.

We’ll start with an example that everyone who speaks English as their first language would get just so you can see what I mean by subject-verb agreement. I’ve italicized the subject and put the verb in bold.

IncorrectThey is happy.

Is they really? They is a plural pronoun, so the verb needs to be plural.

CorrectThey are happy.

Now that you know what I mean when I say subject–verb agreement, we can move on to the ones that even native English speakers bungle.

Incorrect: The number of people at the music festival are growing.

This is a fairly common mistake because we focus on the word people, which is actually the object of the preposition and has no bearing on the correct verb use.

A preposition is put before a noun or pronoun to show the (pro)noun’s relationship to another word in the sentence. So in our example above, of is the preposition that connects number and people. Number of what? Number of people.

To find the subject of a sentence that includes one or more prepositional phrases (the phrases that follow prepositions), just mentally delete the prepositional phrase.

Think of it this way. Your sentence is like an ice cream sundae. The base sentence is the ice cream. Everything else is nuts and whip cream and hot fudge. When someone asks you what type of ice cream you have, they want to know the flavor of the ice cream, not all the other stuff. To see what flavor of ice cream you have, you need to strip away everything that’s not ice cream.

So let’s go back to our original example.

Incorrect: The number of people at the music festival are growing.

If you’re still confused about how to figure out what’s the subject and what’s the prepositional phrase, try deleting both.

The people at the music festival are growing.

Umm, unless the people are all children or they’re eating Alice in Wonderland’s growth cake, that’s probably not what you mean.

Let’s try again.

The number at the music festival is growing.

We still have to ask ourselves number of what? But that’s where we can answer of people.

Correct: The number of people at the music festival is growing.

Let’s look at another, more complex, example of this.

The number of members of Congress with a good approval rating is low.

In the sentence above, we actually have three prepositional phrases: of membersof Congress, and with a good approval rating. If we mentally delete these, we’re left with “The number is low.”

How do we know those are the prepositional phrases?

They all describe another word in the sentence.

The number of what? Of members.

Members of what? Of Congress.

What type of members of Congress? The ones with a good approval rating.

So all that can go, leaving us with…

The number is low.

This is a very important aspect of writing, for both fiction and nonfiction, and not using correct subject–verb agreement can result in people putting down your work and never picking up anything else you ever write.

And here’s another reason it’s important. If you want to write a character whose first language isn’t English, a subtle way to make their dialogue unique is to give them problems with subject-verb agreement. Many people who speak English as a second language struggle with subject-verb agreement even in simple sentences. When you understand it, you can play with it in a character that doesn’t.