Subject-Verb Agreement


Subject-Verb Agreement in Complex Sentences

Complex sentences combine an independent clause with a dependent clause. Sometimes, this combination of clauses can make subject-verb agreement a bit confusing--especially when the dependent clause fits right in the middle of the independent clause! The key is to look at each clause individually and choose a verb that agrees with its own subject, not the subject in another clause.

Look at the following example:

If you read this sentence aloud, your ear will tell you that the verb are is needed to agree with the plural subject friends. The subject of the dependent clause is who, but it's easy to see that this particular who is plural since it's so close to the noun it renames, friends. Therefore, picking the plural verb live is also easy.

Now, let's look at an example that's a bit more complicated:

This sentence is complicated by several factors, beginning with a compound subject. Since the compound subject is joined by and, we know that its verb must be plural. Since the verb is in the future tense--will give, it's form does not change for a singular or plural subject. The problem is with the verb in the dependent clause. Here, we have to ask ourselves just who is working on the project. If both the director and the assistant are working on the project, we need the plural verb are. If only the assistant is working on the project, we need the singular verb is. That is, while both the director and the assistant will be giving a report tomorrow, it's possible that only the assistant is working on the project.

Choosing the right verb makes the meaning of this sentence quite clear. Sometimes, however, subject-verb agreement in complex sentences can be overly complicated. Just remember that if you--the writer who knows what you mean--have a hard time figuring it out, your reader will probably be even more confused. If you're baffled, that's probably a strong hint that you need to completely revise your sentence and find another way to express your meaning.

Most subject-verb agreement questions are easily solved if you remember these guidelines:

  • Start by identifying the correct subject and verb.
  • Use the   to help you make subjects and verbs agree.
  • For compound subjects joined by and choose a plural verb. For compound subjects joined by or or nor, choose the verb to agree with the nearest subject.
  • Watch out for collective nouns and singular nouns that end in -s.
  • In complex sentences, choose subjects and verb one clause at a time.