So, you’ve finished writing your essay but there’s 2 minutes left in the exam – what do you check for first? ⏱ Well, there are lots of mistakes that students make in their essays – articles, unnecessary passives, fragments, bad use of contrast clauses, etc – but perhaps none are as costly as
💀 NOT having subject / verb agreement 💀
So, in today’s post I want start by looking at what subject / verb agreement is, and how you can avoid the most common errors made by many IELTS test-takers.
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What are the subject / verb agreement rules?
OK, let’s start with the very basics. This all might sound very easy, but stick with me because things soon get more difficult!
In English they are 3 types of subject pronouns: 1st Person (when I am talking about myself), 2nd person (when I am talking directly to another person/people) and 3rd person (when I am talking ABOUT people but not directly to them). And, each of these subjects requires a different form of verb.
Now, that all sounds a bit fancy, but actually you learnt this at Beginner level and have been using it ever since (even if you didn’t know it 🤣). Here is a table with the different subject pronouns in English divided by person (who we are talking to / about) and number (how many people we are talking to / about):
|3rd||He / She / It||They|
So, when we are create sentences, we have to think about which type of subject we have in terms of person and number so that we can choose the correct verb. For example, when you were a Beginner student and studied the verb to be – you learned that you had to use the following forms with the different subjects:
|1st||I - am||We - are|
|2nd||You - are||You - are|
|3rd||He / She / It - is||They - are|
Now, so far you are probably thinking
Shelly, this is super easy! How on Earth can students have problems with this! These are the most basic grammar rules in English!
Well, you’re right, when the subject of our sentence is a pronoun (I, you, he, she, it, we, they), it’s easy to make sure that our verbs agree. But how often in an IELTS essay do you start sentences with she?!!!
So, you won’t have to worry about PERSON when you write your essay, but you will definitely have to worry about NUMBER. And this is where things get much more complicated.
Singular or Plural Subjects?
In English, subjects of sentences are either SINGULAR (= ONE) or PLURAL (= MORE THAN ONE), and this also affects the type of verb you need in a sentence. Now, in many cases, it is very easy to tell if the subject of your sentence is singular or plural. For instance, I don’t think any of you would have problems choosing the correct form of verb to use in these sentences:
Singular Subject / Verb Agreement
- An employee who works overtime is more like to get promoted than one who doesn’t.
- It is difficult to find a job without work experience.
Plural Subject / Verb Agreement
- Students often find is hard to focus in exams.
- Many children from single-parent families are more independent than their peers.
- Walking and swimming have been shown to help people lose weight, even though they are gentle forms of exercise.
It is rather obvious that the subject it is singular so is used with the singular verb is, and that the subject students is plural so is used with the plural verb find. Maybe the only tricky subject here is Walking and swimming, which is a plural subject because it contains TWO items.
So again, I can hear you shout, where is the problem Shelly??!!!
Well, the problems come with subjects that aren’t OBVIOUSLY singular or plural. 🤔
Subjects that confuse students!
For example, take the subject Everyone. Is this a singular or a plural subject? What do you think? Well, logic would tell you it is a plural subject – I mean EVERYone is more than one, right? WRONG! 🤯
Everyone is actually a SINGULAR subject! So,
Everyone need help when they start a new hobby = WRONG 👎
Everyone needs help when they start a new hobby = RIGHT 👍
Confusing, right? And this is just ONE example of subjects that look like they are plural but are actually singular. As we will see in a moment, there are many more!
Plus, there are some subjects that have the opposite problem – they look plural but they are actually singular! Take for example subjects that start with a GERUND – the verbs following these are ALWAYS singular!!! And I mean ALWAYS. it doesn’t matter if you have a plural noun later in the subject, if your sentence starts with a gerund, it will ALWAYS need a singular verb.
So, if you started a sentence with this clause – Having children – even though the gerund Having is followed by the plural noun children, our verb MUST be singular!
Having children are a choice that can affect a woman’s career = WRONG 👎
Having children is a choice that can affect a woman’s career = RIGHT 👍
So, perhaps now you can see why Subject / Verb Agreement can cause so many problems for IELTS test-takers.
Nick and I discuss Subject / Verb agreement in one of our most popular podcast episodes – just click play to listen now:
Helpful subject / verb agreement examples
To help you improve your writing, I have created these two tables of subjects that most often cause students to make mistakes with Subject/Verb agreement. Study them carefully and make note of the subjects that surprise you. Even better, print them out and stick them to the table as you practice – this will ensure that you are always conscious of making you subject and verbs agree!
1. Subjects that are ALWAYS SINGULAR (even though you may think they are plural)
|THIS||THIS problem IS growing at a fast rate.|
|After the expression THE NUMBER OF||THE NUMBER OF cars on our roads IS increasing.|
|Subjects that start with |
ANY-, NO-, and EVERY-
|- I don’t know if ANYBODY HAS the answer.
- NOBODY IS available to help today
- EVERYONE IS here
|Relative clauses that show a RESULT||Many women today have jobs, WHICH MEANS that they are delaying having children until much later in life.|
|Sentences that start with a GERUND||BEING a professional sportsman IS extremely dangerous.|
|Uncountable Nouns that end in the letter –S||The NEWS IS depressing today.|
2. Subjects that are ALWAYS PLURAL (even though you may think they are singular!)
|THESE||THESE problems ARE growing at a fast rate.|
|After the expression A NUMBER OF||A NUMBER OF new plans HAVE been implemented|
|Subjects that start with |
BOTH (of), ALL (of), and A COUPLE (of)
|- BOTH problems HAVE to be addressed.
- ALL countries NEED to tackle climate change.
- There ARE A COUPLE OF reasons why I believe education should be free.
So, let’s review what we have learned:
Top 5 Subject / Verb Agreement Rules
- Your subjects and verbs must agree in PERSON (easy) and NUMBER (most so easy!)
- Subjects that have TWO items joined with “and” are always PLURAL
- Learn the tricky subjects that are ALWAYS singular: gerunds, everyone, this, result relative clauses, etc
- Learn the trick subjects that are ALWAYS plural: these, a number of one, both, etc
- Remember that some uncountable nouns ens in “s” i.e. news
Please make sure that you take the time to learn these rules before exam day. You should NEVER make Subject / verb agreement mistakes in your essays – they really are characteristic of a 6.0 student, and it is a real pity to have to award a 6.0 to a student who has otherwise good grammar just because their subjects don’t match their verbs. Good luck! 🚀
If you struggle with Grammar, then you check out my 10 hour IELTS Grammar course. It contains full 30 minute lessons on the 22 most important sentence structures for IELTS test-takers, including relative clauses, gerunds and infinitives and inversion.