When it comes to IELTS writing, it is essential to have a good grasp of grammar. In particular, you need to master the basics, and one of the most basic parts of grammar is subject-verb agreement.
In this article, I will explain subject-verb agreement (and subject-verb disagreement) so that you can understand it well enough to score band 7 or higher.
What is Subject-Verb Agreement?
In English, our sentences need to have at least one subject and one verb, and these must be in agreement. By agreement, I mean that they must be in the same form. For example:
- I eat breakfast every day.
- She eats breakfast every day.
You can see that “I” matches with “eat” and “she” matches with “eats.” When it comes to pronouns like this, we can memorise the verb choice like this:
- I eat
- You eat
- She eats
- He eats
- We eat
- They eat
This might seem a little strange, but it is easy to remember.
When using other nouns, we typically think in terms of singular vs plural:
- A dog is a good pet.
- Dogs are good pets.
In the first example, we have one dog, so we say “is.” In the second, we have more than one dog, so we say “are.”
What is Subject-Verb Disagreement?
Subject-verb disagreement is when the subject and verb of a sentence are not in matching forms. For example:
- She eat breakfast every day. (INCORRECT)
Here, the subject (“she”) does not match with the verb (“eat”), so this is called subject-verb disagreement.
We can have the same problem with singular and plural nouns:
- Dog are good pets. (INCORRECT)
- Cats is very cute. (INCORRECT)
In both cases, the subject does not match the verb, so it is incorrect.
This sort of mistake is quite basic and if you made it in your IELTS writing test, it would tell the examiner that your level is band 5 at most.
However, there are some more complex problems with subject-verb agreement…
Subject-Verb Agreement with Noun Phrases
Whilst subject-verb agreement is often a simple matter, it can sometimes be a bit more difficult. For example, if you have a long noun made up of many words, it can be challenging to figure out which one should match with the verb.
- Finding good recipes are a big challenge.
- Finding good recipes is a big challenge.
Which of these sentences is correct?
The correct one is #2 because “Finding” is the head noun. This is a gerund and it matches with the verb “is.”
The problem here is that many people would think “recipes” is the noun, but actually it is just part of a noun phrase.
Noun phrases are groups of words that function as a noun, but it might actually contain several nouns! You should not assume that the noun nearest the verb is the subject of the sentence. It is the main noun of the phrase and gives the phrase its meaning.
- Going to the zoo is her favourite thing to do.
Here, “Going” is the head noun.
Sometimes we have a plural noun that is grouped as part of a singular noun, such as:
- A pair of trousers.
- A group of birds.
- A team of experts.
Even though the word that seems important (trousers, birds, experts) is in plural form, it is actually the first noun that is the main one. This is what matches with the verb:
- A pair of trousers is what I’m looking for.
- A group of birds is on that branch.
- A team of experts is coming to visit.
Subject-Verb Agreement with Multiple Nouns
One of the hardest parts of subject-verb agreement is dealing with multiple subjects. That doesn’t mean the same as plural nouns, but rather when there are several subjects mentioned in the sentence. For example:
- Eating and sleeping are important for your health.
Here, we have two subjects:
Thus, the verb should be in plural form: “are.”
Note that this does not change regardless of whether the nouns are plural or singular:
- A dog and a cat are sitting on a wall.
- Dogs and cats are sitting on a wall.
In both cases, there is more than one thing mentioned, so we must use the plural-form verb, “are.”
Subject-Verb Agreement and Verb Tense
Not all verb tenses require changes for subject-verb agreement. The past simple, for example, does not:
- The boy played football.
- Those two boys played football.
These are both correct.
However, if we use the present perfect tense, we must alter the auxiliary verb:
- The boy has played football.
- Those two boys have played football.
In the future simple tense, we also leave the verb unchanged:
- The boy will play football.
- Those two boys will play football.
Make sure you are familiar with the rules for the verb tense that you need to use.
Common Subject-Verb Agreement Problems
As you can see, subject-verb agreement is easy at a basic level but there are some complexities, particularly when we have multiple nouns or plural nouns.
Can you fix these problems?
- Cooking dinner for several children are a big challenge.
- A tree and a bush is located just outside my window.
- Two cameras and a tripod is all I’m taking with me.
- A pair of shorts are enough for this trip.
- Going shopping to buy lots of clothes are my hobby.
Here are the answers:
- Cooking dinner for several children is a big challenge.
- A tree and a bush are located just outside my window.
- Two cameras and a tripod are all I’m taking with me.
- A pair of shorts is enough for this trip.
- Going shopping to buy lots of clothes is my hobby.
You can learn more about grammar in this article on conjunctive adverbs.