Any English teacher will tell you that one of the most common problems with their learners’ grammar is subject-verb disagreement. This occurs in English classrooms all across the world and it is definitely a big problem that needs to be addressed before you book your TOEFL exam.
In this article, I’m going to outline every major thing that you need to know about subject-verb disagreement and how it relates to TOEFL.
What is subject-verb disagreement
First of all, let’s talk about what subject-verb disagreement is because even though it’s incredibly common in everyday English, most people don’t actually know the term.
Basically, subject-verb disagreement means that your subject and verb are not in agreement. To put it another way, the subject of the sentence is not in the right form for the verb of the sentence, and vice versa.
This relates to whether or not the subject and verb are in plural or singular form. As you should be aware, both subject and verb should be in the same form. If they are not, then we have a big problem. Although it is an easy mistake to make, it is hard to realize when we have done it. Unfortunately, the examiner will have no problem noticing it in either your speaking or writing test, so you need to get good at avoiding it.
Let’s take an example from the TOEFL writing test:
- Many graduates struggles to find jobs after leaving university.
What is the problem with this sentence?
That’s right, the problem is that the verb (“struggles”) is in the wrong form. It is supposed to match with the subject (“graduates”). If your subject is in plural form, then the verb also needs to be in that form to make the sentence grammatically correct. Here is how we could fix it:
- Many graduates struggle to find jobs after leaving university.
Tense and subject-verb disagreement
You may be wondering whether the issue of subject-verb disagreement is affected by tense, and you would be right. Tense does have an effect on this issue. This problem primarily concerns the present simple tense and others that use auxiliary verbs. It is not a problem that concerns sentences in the past simple, for example.
Let’s see some more examples:
- Employers seeksgraduates with advanced interpersonal skills.
- Employers is seeking graduates with advanced interpersonal skills.
- Employers has sought graduates with advanced interpersonal skills.
In each of those sentences, there is a case of subject-verb disagreement. In the first sentence, we have present simple, in the second, present continuous, and in the third present perfect. Those verbs and auxiliary verbs need to be changed to the following:
- Employers seek graduates with advanced interpersonal skills.
- Employers are seeking graduates with advanced interpersonal skills.
- Employers have sought graduates with advanced interpersonal skills.
Now, each verb matches the subject perfectly.
But what about the past simple?
- Employers sought graduates with advanced interpersonal skills.
- The employer sought graduates with advanced interpersonal skills.
This is fine, and there is no difference in the verb regardless of whether the subject is in plural or singular form.
Multiple subjects and subject-verb disagreement
Sometimes a sentence can have more than one subject, and when that subject is joined by the word “and” we should treat it as a plural form subject, even when there is just one of each. For example:
- Employers and employees has disagreed over how to address the problem.
- Employers and employees have disagreed over how to address the problem.
- The university and the local library agrees to host a forum on this issue.
- The university and the local library agree to host a forum on this issue.
It can be clearly seen from the above examples that when we list two subjects prior to the verb, then the verb must treat the subjects as plural. We cannot use a verb that we would use for a singular subject, even when both subjects are themselves in singular form.
On the other hand, if the two subjects are linked by “or” or “nor” then the verb will take the form of the subject that is closest to it. In other words, if the second subject is plural then the verb should be in plural form, and if it is singular then the verb should be singular, too.
We can see that demonstrated in the following example:
- Neither the local council nor the university has committed to funding the venture.
- Both the student union and the council of professors have issued statements on the problem.
In the first sentence, both subjects are in singular form and so the auxiliary verb “has” is used. In the second sentence, the second subject (“professors”) is in plural form and so we used “have.” This rule may seem a little complicated, but it is important to remember. If you read a lot and practice often, then it will become more intuitive and you will understand it better.
Difficulties with multiple verbs
Finally, it worth commenting that even once you remember the basic rules of subject-verb agreement, it can still be easy to make a mistake, so you really do need to be careful. This is because sometimes the subject and verb of a sentence can be set quite far apart and by the time you come to write the verb, you have mentally disconnected from the form of the subject.
One such instance of this is when there are multiple verbs in a sentence. The problem caused here is that maybe the first verb is in the correct form because it is near the subject, but then the second verb is further away and you have forgotten about matching it with the subject. This is a very easy mistake to make. Look at the example below:
- The dean of admissions has spoken with students about the issue and have promised to take swift action.
There are several factors that made this sentence difficult, but only one makes it incorrect. First of all, is the subject (dean of admissions) in singular or plural form? It is in singular form. “Dean” is the subject, not “admissions.” So the first verb (“has spoken”) is correct but the second one (“have promised”) is incorrect. Perhaps this mistake was made because of the confusion with the original subject, or perhaps it was because there was another noun that appeared later (“students”). In any case, you need to double-check all your verbs to ensure they are in the correct form and tense.
Here is the correct version:
- The dean of admissions has spoken with students about the issue and has promised to take swift action.
Subject-verb agreement for TOEFL success
As you have seen above, subject-verb disagreement is very common but it can be avoided. You should strive in your essays and speech to avoid this problem and make sure that your subjects and verbs are all in the right form. One you can do this, you are ready to take on the TOEFL.
Being able to score highly for TOEFL requires good grammar and good grammar requires subject-verb agreement. You should be totally familiar with the above rules and spend a lot of time practicing in order to eliminate those mistakes from your spoken and written English.
When you go into the test, be mentally prepared to check yourself and edit out those pesky little errors to give yourself the best shot at dazzling the examiners.