Friday, July 28, 2017

Janet Ruth Heller, Grammar Guru: Agreement of Subjects and Verbs

Introducing Janet Ruth Heller in her first Grammar Guru post! Janet will address common grammar problems and questions that she frequently encountered during her thirty-five years as a college professor of English literature, composition, creative writing, and linguistics. Today's post is a back-to-the-basics lesson as Janet explains the agreement of subjects and verbs in fiction. Here's Janet:

In most English sentences, the subject and verb are right next to one another, so it is easy to make them agree. If the subject is singular, the verb should be singular; if the subject is plural, the verb should also be plural. For example, in the sentence “Molly likes pizza,” the subject “Molly” is singular, so the verb “likes” is also singular.  In the sentence “Molly and Jack like pizza,” the subject “Molly and Jack” is plural, so the verb “like” is also plural.

Note that people who have not grown up speaking English find it confusing that this language uses an s to make nouns plural but also uses an s to make present tense verbs singular. So if a character in your story is just learning English, he or she will probably have trouble with subject-verb agreement, and you may reflect that in your dialogue. Also, young children who are just learning English will not make subjects and verbs agree perfectly, so you do not need to make toddlers sound like college professors.

Similarly, the United States, England, South Africa, India, and other English-speaking countries have dialects that make subjects and verbs agree differently. Each dialect has its own subject-verb agreement rules. When you portray a character who knows a nonstandard dialect, such as Cockney English, Chicano English, or African American English, you should do research on the rules of that dialect. Also, be consistent in having that character not add s to singular present tense verbs, for instance.

Even native speakers of English have trouble with what we linguists call “blind agreement.” In about thirty percent of sentences, the subject and verb get separated by other words. When this happens, a writer has to work harder to determine what the real subject is. For example, in the sentence “The playground of the children has flooded,” the adjective prepositional phrase “of the children” comes between the subject “playground” and the verb “has flooded.” Although the plural word “children” comes right next to the verb, “children” is not the subject, so the verb needs to be singular. Similarly, in the sentence “Any student who talks back to teachers gets expelled from school,” the adjective relative clause “who talks back to teachers” separates the singular subject “student” and the singular verb “gets expelled.” Despite the fact that the plural word “teachers” is right next to the verb, “teachers” is not the sentence’s subject. In standard English, a verb must agree with its subject, not any nearby word.

Of course, if your story has characters who are learning English, who speak a nonstandard dialect, or who are very young, their conversation or monologues need to reflect their struggle with blind agreement. For example, a child, vernacular speaker, or immigrant might say or write in a journal, “My friends from Detroit comes with me to the State Fair” or “My friend from Detroit come with me to the State Fair.” Flawed subject-verb agreement adds realism in fiction for children.

Janet Ruth Heller, President of the Michigan College English Association, wrote the poetry books EXODUS, FOLK CONCERT, and TRAFFIC STOP; the scholarly book COLERIDGE, LAMB, HAZLITT AND THE READER OF DRAMA; the middle-grade fiction chapter book THE PASSOVER SURPRISE; and the award-winning children’s book about bullying HOW THE MOON REGAINED HER SHAPE. Learn more at

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Frequent contributor Charlie Barshaw has officially joined the Mitten Blog editorial team! Come back next Friday for our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature where Charlie will shine the spotlight on one of our SCBWI-MI members. Who will it be?

Registration is now open for the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference with early-bird pricing until August 5th. Don't delay - spots are filling up fast and the conference is expected to sell-out. Learn more and register here.


  1. Dear Friends,

    Thank you, Kristin Lenz, for publishing my essay. I welcome questions and topics for future Grammar Guru columns. Best wishes to all of the talented writers and artists in the SCBWI's Michigan chapter!

    Janet Ruth Heller
    Author of the award-winning book for children about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006), and the middle-grade book for kids The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015).
    My website is

  2. Thanks, Janet, for the tips! I look forward to more of Grammar Guru.