Subjects and Verbs

Subjects and Verbs

Verbs | Subjects | Subject-Verb Agreement


To find the main verb, look for the word or words that signal the performance of an act, the occurrence of an event, or the presence of a condition: ask "Do I ever _________?" "Have I ever ________?" "Will I ever ________?"

Jesus wept. Birds fly. Fish swim.
Clyde is a dog. Sarah sang a song.  


Often the verb is directly preceded by one of twenty-odd helping verbs.

do does did        
can could          
shall should          
will would          
may might must        
am are is was were be been
have has had have      


Ann and Roger can spend their money any way they want.

They were talking and working at the same time.

COMPLICATIONS--Verbals: Often a group of words looks like it contains a word that is actually a verbal, words that function not as verbs but as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. One type of verbal ends in ing or ed/en), while another verbal form is marked by a to before the verb (writing, written, to write). In the following examples the verbals are underlined and the verbs are bolded.

Writing a paper for my history course proved a difficult yet challenging assignment.

My paper, written for my history course, proved a difficult yet challenging assignment.

It proved to be a difficult yet challenging assignment to write a paper for my history course.

To find the subject, look for the word or words that signals who performed the action of the verb: ask "Who wept?" "Who flies?" "Who swims?"

Jesus wept. Birds fly. Fish swim.


Subjects are never found in prepositional phrases, so in long sentences, identifying the prepositional phrases can help you narrow your choice for subject. Look for the following propositions:

about above across after against along
among around at before behind below
beneath beside between beyond by down
during except for from in inside
into like near of off on
outside over past since through to
toward under until up upon with
within without        


(With intermittent car trouble) one (of the fellows) drove (to the Yukon) (during the first week)(of his vacation).

(During the course)(of winter quarter), the professor (to the students)(in Engineering 412) developed a severe case (of laryngitis) that lasted (until spring quarter).

COMPLICATIONS--Delayed Subjects: Finding the subject in sentences with delayed subjects can be tricky. Some words--there and here--look like subjects but actually merely delay the real subjects of a sentence. (In the examples below, note the plural verbs which reflect the true subjects.)

There are only two ways to answer this question.

Here come the classmates who will be joining you for this study group.

Subject-Verb Agreement

  • Use singular verbs with singular nouns and plural verbs with plural nouns. Intervening clauses or phrases introduced by prepositions do not affect the verb choice. 
The dog barks.

The dogs bark.

The ax does cut.

The axes do cut.

The pilot, along with his copilots, rescues the passengers.

The engine together with both wings was damaged in the crash.

  • Use the singular form of a verb with most indefinite pronouns. 
"One" words: one anyone everyone no one someone
"Body" words: anybody everybody nobody somebody  
"Thing" words: everything something      
Others: any each either neither none


Neither of his parents accepts his excuse.

Each of the students has chosen a subject for research.

All of this pie goes in the trash.

Exception: Use a plural verb with indefinite pronouns that have a plural meaning in the sentence: all, any, many, more, most, and some.

All of the students go to the movies each Friday.

Use a plural verb with a compound subject joined by and

Barney and Betty, my favorite cousins, both fear snakes.

Studying regularly and attending class daily are essential activities for the successful student.

Steve's winning smile and friendly nature are key to his success as a sales representative.

Exception: Use a singular verb when the nouns joined by and are actually describing one thing or person. 

Macaroni and cheese makes an inexpensive dinner.
  • Use the verb form which agrees with the subject nearest the verb with a compound subject joined by these conjunctions. 
or nor either neither not but


Neither the fans nor the commentator thinks this is a good game.

Neither the commentator nor the fans think this is a good game.

Not the referee but the fans see that foul.

Not the fans but the referee sees that foul.

  • Use singular verbs when collective nouns refer to a group as a unit, but use plural verbs when collective nouns refer to the group as individuals. 
The faculty meets tomorrow at noon.

The faculty give speeches tomorrow at noon.

  • Use singular verbs with nouns plural in form but clearly singular in meaning. 
Economics has no theories to explain the current recession.

Today's news disheartens all of us.