Tech Writing Tip: Finding the Subject for Correct Subject-Verb Agreement

August 23, 2021 Breanne MacDonald

As a technical editor with ASCENT, I often come across instances of incorrect subject-verb agreement. At first glance, this seems like a basic grammar rule to adhere to: Verbs must agree with their subjects, so a singular subject takes a singular verb and a plural subject takes a plural verb.

Singular: The file is copied to the working folder.

Plural: The files are saved to the hard drive.

[Note: for all examples, subjects are in bold and verbs are in blue.]

However, this simple rule can become tricky to follow correctly when you are dealing with longer, more complex sentences. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are a few tips you can use to help you determine proper subject-verb agreement.

If you are unsure of the correct verb form to use when writing your sentence, the first thing to do is determine the subject of the sentence. Consider the following:

System changes require user buy-in and support.

In this example, the subject is changes, so a plural form of the verb will be needed.

System changes require user buy-in and support.

When a subject is immediately followed by its verb, as in the above example, it is easier to determine the correct subject-verb agreement. Identifying the subject can be more difficult when it is located further away from its verb, as in the following example.

Incorrect: A tightly integrated combination of three training offerings provide unprecedented flexibility.

Correct: A tightly integrated combination of three training offerings provides unprecedented flexibility.

Even though the word “offerings” is closest to the verb, the correct subject is “combination” so a singular verb must be used.

Sometimes there are other words in the sentence that modify the subject or provide additional information. This can mean there are other nouns and verbs in the sentence, which can make determining the main subject and verb difficult. The following sentence is a great example of this.

At this point, a central model with multiple worksets (such as element interiors, building shell, and site) that are used by the project team members is created.

If you remove the additional information and reduce the sentence to its simplest form, you are left with “A central model is created.” This makes it easier to see that this subject should take a singular verb.

These are just a couple examples of sentences where finding the correct subject-verb agreement may be more difficult. If the topic of subject-verb agreement makes your head spin, let ASCENT do the work for you through our technical editing and writing services. We're here to help! Email us at tech.writing@ASCENTed.com.

About the Author

Breanne MacDonald

Technical Editor<br><br>Fueled by her meticulous nature, an eye for detail, and a love of books, Breanne has been an editor for over 10 years. She has been a technical editor with ASCENT since 2019, and outside the office she is the treasurer of the Editors’ Association of Canada. Breanne holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wilfrid Laurier University and a certificate in publishing from Ryerson University.

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