Business Writing Tip #196 – Common Causes of Subject-Verb Agreement Errors

In the last tip we looked at-subject-verb agreement, and the verb forms you need to use.

But what kinds of errors do people make when it comes to subject-verb agreement? There are four common errors. It is easy to get confused when:

  1. The sentence contains a compound subject

Compound Subjects

When two or more nouns and the coordinating conjunctions and, or and nor form the subject of a sentence, it is referred to as a compound subject. You might have two singular subjects, two plural subjects, or one singular and one plural subject.

The verb form depends on the conjunction.

With And

When you use and, use a plural verb form.

For example:

  • Mohammed and Christine are finalising the report.
  • My phone skills and written communication are excellent.

Hint: If you can use they in place of the compound subject, use the third person plural verb form.

With Or or Nor

If you use or or nor the verb agrees with the subject nearest to the verb.

Two singular subjects:

  • Neither Mohammed nor Christine has time to finalise the report.
  • Either Mohammed or Christine is finalising the report.

Two plural subjects:

  • Neither the team members nor the supervisors want to finalise the report.
  • Either the team members or the supervisors are finalising the report.

Plural and singular subjects:

  • Neither the team members nor Mohammed wants to finalise the report.
  • Either the team members or Mohammed wants to finalise the report.

Singular and plural subjects:

  • Neither Mohammed nor the team members want to finalise the report.
  • Either Mohammed or the team members want to finalise the report.
  • Either the team members or Mohammed wants to finalise the report.
  1. The subject of the sentence is separate from the verb

The sentence might include a phrase or clause that separates the subject and the verb. It might be a prepositional phrase which adds more information, or a dependent clause. The subject and verb still need to agree.

  • The team members with the highest sales figures get the bonuses.
  • The photocopier in the room next to the kitchen is the best one for double-sided, colour copying.
  • The new printer that I bought has the ability to print more quickly than our old printer, and it is cheaper to run.
  • The sales people who build the strongest relationships with their clients are the most successful.
  1. The subject of the sentence is an indefinite pronoun (e.g. anyone, everything)

Most often an indefinite pronoun is the subject of a sentence it will take the singular verb form. But there are exceptions. You need to think about the noun that the pronoun would refer to, and whether that is singular or plural.

Indefinite Pronouns That Always Take a Singular Verb Indefinite Pronouns That Can Take a Singular or a Plural Verb
Anybody All
Anyone Any
Anything None
Each Some
No one


  1. The subject of the sentence is a collective noun (e.g. team)

Collective nouns identify more than one person, or thing, and considers them as a singular unit. Therefore you need to use a singular verb.

  • The team is going on a retreat to develop its business plan for the next 12 months.
  1. The subject appears after the verb

This is not so common in written Business English, but you may see it.

For example:

  • There are fifty widgets in the storeroom.
  • Here is the report.

If you have trouble with this in sentences that begin with “There are” or “Here is”, turn the sentence around.

  • Fifty widgets are in the storeroom.
  • The report is here.

Happy writing!

Business Writing Tip #195—Subject-Verb Agreement

subject-verb agreementOne thing most people know about English is that the verbs need to agree with the subjects. Agreement is the grammatical match between words and phrases.

One of the main forms of agreement is subject-verb agreement and making sure your subjects and verbs agree will help you create a strong, professional impression with your business writing.

Subjects can be either singular or plural, and the verbs must agree in number with the subject.

That is, a singular subject goes together with a singular verb form, and a plural subject belongs with a plural verb form.

Regular Verbs

The pattern for regular verbs is predictable. The third person singular (he, she, it) adds an ‘s’ to the verb. Other forms do not end in ‘s’.

  Singular Form Plural Form
First Person I decide. We decide.
Second Person You decide. You decide.
Third Person He/She/It decides. They decide.


When it comes to spelling there is one thing you need to remember.

If the verb ends in –sh, -z, -ch or –s you need to add –es, rather than just –s.

For example:

  • I finish, she finishes.
  • You watch, he watches.
  • I fix the photocopier. The technician fixes the photocopier.

Irregular Verbs

English has many irregular verbs. Some of the most common are be, have and do.


Be Singular Form Plural Form
First Person I am. We are.
Second Person You are. You are.
Third Person He/She/It is. They are.


Have Singular Form Plural Form
First Person I have. We have.
Second Person You have. You have.
Third Person He/She/It has. They have.


Do Singular Form Plural Form
First Person I do. We do.
Second Person You do. You do.
Third Person He/She/It does. They do.

In the next post we will look at some of the common reasons errors occur.

Happy writing.


Business Writing Tip #189—Simply the best

DSCN0258In the last tip I talked about comparisons. In this tip we’ll look at superlatives. This is the form of adjective we use to indicate the greatest degree of the quality described by the adjective.

So if a building is taller than all the other buildings in the world, it is the tallest.

In this sentence the word tallest is the superlative form of the adjective tall, and taller is the comparative form.

With comparatives there can be degrees of comparison. Something might be a lot smaller, or a little bit smaller, or substantially smaller.

We cannot do this with superlatives because, by definition, they express the greatest degree of the quality.

And just like the comparative, we form the superlative in two ways depending on the original word.

The -est form

-est is added to one syllable adjectives and to two syllable adjectives ending in –y. If the adjective ends in –e, we just add -st.

large       largest

small      smallest

happy      happiest

tiny          tiniest

Sometimes we have to double the final consonant of a word.

  • When a one-syllable adjective ends in consonant + vowel + consonant, we double the final letter of the adjective.

Red                 reddest

Big                   biggest

Thin                thinnest

  • If the adjective ends in –y or –w, we don’t double the final letter

Grey                greyest

Slow                slowest

  • When the adjective ends in vowel + vowel + consonant, or in vowel + consonant + consonant, we don’t double the final letter.

Cheap             cheapest

Old                  oldest

The most form

When an adjective has more than two syllables we don’t add –est. Instead we use the word most before the adjective.

Spelling is one of the most difficult aspects of English for non-native speakers.

The most complicated solution is not usually the best.

A bit more about comparisons

We have two other structures we can use to form comparisons in English. These are:

  • As … as (also used in the negative not as … as)
  • Than

Here’s an example:

Company A made $10 million profit. Company B made $8 million and Company C made $5 million. Company Z made $10 million.

  • Company C is successful.
  • Company B is more successful than Company C.
  • But it is not as successful as Company A.
  • Company Z is as successful as Company A.

We can also use twice as…as, or three times

  • Company A made twice as much profit as Company C.

And if two things are the same:

  • Company A made the same amount of profit as Company Z.

Happy writing.


Business Writing Tip #185—Dropping ‘Who’ and ‘That’

Sometimes we can drop ‘who’ and ‘that’ from our sentences. Most native speakers know when to do this, but if you ask them for a rule, they’ll struggle to give you one.

Now many ‘rules’ in English can be safely ignored. Think about ‘never split an infinitive’. If everyone obeyed the rule we wouldn’t have The Enterprise’s mission in Star Trek: ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before.’

But when it comes to dropping ‘who’ and ‘that’ we need to obey the rules.

First we need to know what they are. For this I turned to Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use. Murphy explains:English grammar in use

When ‘who’ or ‘that’ is the subject, you have to keep it; when it’s the object you can discard it.

So here’s an example.

The consultant who I met yesterday is working on a review of our costs.

In this sentence I met the consultant. ‘I’ am the subject. ‘The consultant’ is the object.

Because ‘the consultant’ is the object, I can drop the word ‘who’ without any problems. Then the sentence becomes:

The consultant I met yesterday is working on a review of our costs.

But here’s an example where you can’t drop it.

The consultant who is reviewing our costs will be using the office next to yours.

The consultant is the subject. It is the consultant who is reviewing our costs. One way to make this clear is to remove the relative clause (who is reviewing our costs). Then you have ‘The consultant will be using the office next to yours.’

We cannot say:

The consultant is reviewing our costs will be using the office next to yours.

‘Who’ has to stay because ‘the consultant who is reviewing our costs’ is the subject.

Another example, this time with ‘that’:

Where is the report that you said you’d have finished today? (You said you would finish the report.)

‘The report’ is the object so you can say, ‘Where is the report you said you’d have finished today?’

Now with ‘the report’ as the subject:

The report that highlights cost savings is on your desk.


The report highlights cost savings is on your desk.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #169—A Tip for Writing Better Sentences

When you’re editing your first draft, it’s a good idea to check if you have used parallel structures. Checking this will help make sure that your sentences are grammatically consistent, and using parallel structures makes your sentences easier to read.Nam Miru escalator

What is a parallel structure?

If your sentence has sections that have similar content and function, write them in a similar way.

For example, make sure verbs tenses are consistent.

  • He was researching, drafted and writing the report.
  • He researched, drafted and wrote the report.
  • Before the meeting we need to: draft the agenda, arranging the venue, setting up the refreshments, and invite the participants.
  • Before the meeting we need to: draft the agenda, arrange the venue, set up the refreshments, and invite the participants.

It’s also important to think about other types of words.

  • Small group meetings will take place both in and outside of the main conference hall.
  • Small group meetings will take place both inside and outside of the main conference hall.

Usually we make this kind of mistake when we’re in a hurry, so make sure you have time to read through your writing before you have to send or submit it.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #168—Types of Sentences

My last post looked at subjects and predicates. This tip introduces you to the four different types of sentences.

The Four Types of Sentence

  1. Declarative—these sentences make a statement and end with a full stop (US English: period).

I will submit the report on Friday.

  1. Interrogative—these sentences ask questions and end with a question mark.



Will the report be finished by Friday?

  1. Imperative—these sentences are the ones we use to make a request or give a command and they usually end with a full stop. These are the sentences we use for to-do lists, agendas and to outline instructions.

– Book the venue.

– Make the catering arrangements for morning and afternoon tea, and lunch.

– Brief the audio-visual contractors about our requirements.

– Draft the agenda.

  1. Exclamatory—these sentences are the ones we use to express strong feelings and they end with an exclamation mark (US English: exclamation point). They are rare in business English but may be used in sales/advertising copy or in emails when we have a strong rapport with the recipient.

Buy one, get one free!

Can you believe it? It’s budget time again! Can we get together for a chat tomorrow, say at ten, and start working on the draft?

Happy writing.

Image credit: Amber Parrow. ALPHABETAGEEK 


Business Writing Tip # 167—A Few Words about Sentences

2048px-Lego_Color_BricksSentences are one of the main units of writing, one of the building blocks. We have words, and we have paragraphs and, in between, we have sentences.

At its most basic a sentence has two parts: a subject and a predicate. And to be a complete sentence it must have both parts. In some writing incomplete sentences are fine, but in business writing it’s best to write complete sentences (writing sales copy is probably the only exception to this).

First some quick definitions . . .

Subject: who or what the sentence is about

Predicate: says something about the subject

The shortest complete sentence in English is:

I am.

‘I’ is the subject. ‘Am’ is the predicate.

To find the subject of your sentence, first find the main verb and then ask ‘who?’ or ‘what?’


Yesterday, after lunch, the client contacted me.

The main verb is ‘contacted’. Who or what contacted? The client.

But it’s not always simple . . .

Both parts of the sentence can be simple, complex or compound, or a combination of each.

This is where a careless writer may get into trouble, writing long, rambling sentences. A good rule of thumb on sentence length is ‘No sentence should have more than 20 words’.

Now, like all rules, you may need to break this one; it’s more general guidance than a rule.

Simplex, complex and compound

Here’s a simple example:

  • The committee has approved the proposal.

The subject is ‘the committee’ and the predicate is ‘has approved the proposal’.

Now a more complex example:

  • The Finance Committee, which met on Monday 13 April 2015, has approved the proposal put forward by the HR Committee that apart from graduate recruitment, recruitment be frozen for the next two months.

The simple subject is ‘the finance committee’ and the simple predicate is ‘approved the proposal’.

Then there are complex subjects and predicates:

  • The committee and the board have discussed and approved the proposal.

Here there are two nouns in the subject (the committee and the board) and two verbs relating to that subject (discussed and approved).

Happy writing.


Image by Alan Chia (Lego Color Bricks) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Business Writing Tip #164—Hopefully

At school I was taught, “Adverbs modify verbs”. Is this something that you were taught as well? Do you know that adverbs do not necessarily modify only verbs? They can also modify whole clauses or sentences.

Hopefully is a word that has two meanings—depending on how it’s used, whether it’s modifying a verb, or a phrase.

The original meaning was ‘in a hopeful manner’, or ‘full of hope’.hopefully_1.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge

So, I can write:

  • I waited hopefully to get a new job.

Some time later (according to Grammar Girl, about 300 years ago) ‘hopefully’ took on a new meaning, that of ‘it is to be hoped’ or ‘I hope’.

  • Hopefully the price will remain the same until we get approval to buy the new photocopier.

In the first example, the word ‘hopefully’ is modifying the verb ‘waited’. It is telling you how I waited.

The second example, however, uses the word ‘hopefully’ to modify the phrase ‘the price will remain the same’. I am hoping that the price will remain the same.

If you want to avoid misunderstandings, and the anger of some grammar sticklers, you can replace “hopefully” when it’s modifying a phrase or sentence with “I hope that” or “I am hoping that”.

Another adverb which works in a similar way is ‘normally’.

  • He spoke normally, even though he knew that the audience couldn’t hear him because of the jackhammer working outside of the room.

In this example he spoke in a normal voice. He didn’t adjust his volume to take account of the extra noise.

  • We normally have our weekly meeting on Friday mornings.

It is normal for us to have our weekly meeting on Fridays, not that we have our meeting in a normal manner.

I am hoping that this all makes sense to you. Happy writing.

Photo illustration by Gretchen McCulloch, image courtesy Wikimedia.

A grammar gift idea …


A Grammar Gift Idea

I rarely highlight commercial products on my blog but I couldn’t resist. I recently saw these fabulous Grammar Grumbles mugs advertised on the web.

When you’re not sure which word to use, if you mix up your ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, your ‘affects’ and ‘effects’, this set of six mugs will help. Or if you have one of those friends, or colleagues, who literally dies laughing … do them a favour and buy them a useful reminder of the correct words to use. The messages on the mugs are:grammar mugs

  • They’re there for their afternoon tea.
  • I am figuratively dying for a cuppa.
  • The caffeine effect can affect us all.
  • Don’t lose the loose-leaf tea.
  • I’m going to add two sugars too.
  • Less milk and fewer sugar lumps.

And as the website states, “Even if you don’t take grammar as seriously as I do, I still think these mugs are great reminders of the rules.”

Happy writing.

P.S. Please note, this is not a paid ad – I just love the mugs 🙂

Business Writing Tip #160—Phrasal Verbs

IMG_2319Phrasal verbs are a useful aspect of English which help us with the register of our writing. If we are writing something very formal, for example a report, we probably wouldn’t use them. But if we want to write an email to a long-standing customer who we have known for some years, the verbs we would usually use when we write at work might seem too formal. We might accidentally offend our client who could be wondering, “Why are they being so distant with me?” Phrasal verbs work perfectly in this kind of situation.

First, a definition. Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell give the following definition in English Phrasal Verbs in Use: Advanced.

“Phrasal verbs are verbs that consist of a verb and a particle (a preposition or adverb) or a verb and two particles (an adverb and a preposition, as in get on with or look forward to).”

Maybe this made everything clear to you, or maybe it didn’t. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you know that you can make your writing less formal by using phrasal verbs.

Here’s a list of some phrasal verbs that are useful in business English.

Phrasal Verb Definition Example
To ask around To ask many people the same question Could you ask around the office and see if there’s someone available to work this weekend?
To back someone up To support Thanks for backing me up when I presented the proposal.
To not care for To not like I don’t care for the proposed office layout. Let’s see if there’s a better way.
To chip in To help If everyone chips in, it’ll only take about half an hour.
To cut back on To consume less, to reduce It looks as though we’re heading for an overspend. We need to cut back on some of our expenses.
To do something over To do again I thought my report was safe, but my computer crashed and the hard drive is fried. I need to do it over.
To drop by To visit without an appointment I’ll be over your side of town tomorrow afternoon. Is it okay if I drop by?
To drop someone/something off To take something/someone somewhere My car’s broken down. Can you drop me off at the station after work?


I’ll give you some more examples in my next post.

Happy writing.

About the photo: This photo is a detail on the interior walls of the Czech National Technical Library.