Subjects – Simple, Compound and not so Simple

The subject of a sentence is what the sentence is all about.

John is going out on a vacation.

The above is a simple sentence with John as the subject. The subject is made up of a single noun, John.

Now let us look at the following examples:

John and Mary are going out on a vacation. (2)

John, along with Mary is going out on a vacation

Either me or my brothers will come today.

The subjects are no longer single nouns, but are a part of a phrase consisting of many nouns, joined together either by a conjunction or additives. Essentially, now the subject is a noun phrase, consisting of many nouns tied together with conjunctions or additives.

In the specific case of two nouns combined by the conjunctive and, it is called a compound subject (as in example (2)).

Noun phrases can also be longer as in the following examples:

A swarm of bees is invading the farm. (5)

The committee of engineers is scheduled to meet today.(6)

The members of parliament are scheduled to get a pay hike. (7)

In the above cases, the subject consists of a several nouns connected by prepositions, In such cases, you should be careful when choosing the verb that follows the subject phrase. The verb usually refers to the main subject (swarm, committee, members) inside the subject phrase. Hence, whether the verb is singular or plural will be decided by the main subject and not the noun nearest to it.

The noun phrases in the above examples had nouns related to each other using prepositions. Hence structurally, they are referred to as prepositional phrases.Functionally, they are noun phrases.

Standardized Tests like the SAT often confuse the test taker by placing a singular or plural verb right next to a singular or plural noun in a subject phrase. The student has to comprehend the meaning of the sentence and correctly understand the noun the verb refers to and on that basis choose its number. In (6) and (7) the verbs is and are correctly refer to swarm and parliament.


In the following examples, can you correctly identify the verb that should be used?

The mechanic with the families repair/repairs the cars in their godowns.

The wives of the armed forces veterans is/are at the charity ball.





repairs as mechanic is singular.

are because wives is plural.

Two more examples for you:

The grievance of the ladies in the apartment block , was/were that the security guards were not always present at their station.

The cat on the hot tin roofs look/looks ready to jump at me any moment.

The Mystery of the Missing Subject!

One of my students recently asked me:

What is the subject in the following  sentence?

There are many cats on the cold tin roof.

When I asked him to guess, he said “There” was the subject of the sentence. He said this because the usual word order in English is S-V-O. Therefore he thought “There” was the subject of the sentence. But is it so?

Lets analyze the sentence.

Grammar Diagrams

The sentence is about cats so that is the subject. And the verb is are. And we have the preposition on and its object cold tin roof.

So what about there? What role is it playing in the sentence? It is definitely not the subject since we are not talking about there, we are talking about cats.

There here functions as a placeholder. It has no meaning by itself. It is a filler. It is required simply for the sake of grammar. It is a syntactical requirement and has no semantic (meaningful) function.

In fact the above sentence can be re-written as:

Many cats are on the cold tin roofs. 

The meaning is perfectly conveyed even though there is omitted. There is not required.

The technical term for there in the above sentence is an expletive. It means a filler.

Expletives are used when in everyday conversations but you are required to avoid them in formal English.

Another example of an expletive is here.

  • Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished. If you’re alive, it isn’t.”
    (Richard Bach)

The word here in the above sentence is an expletive and is not the subject of the sentence. The sentence can be re-written as:

The test to find out whether your mission on earth is finished is this. If you are alive, it isn’t.

Another commonly used expletive filler or placeholder is the pronoun it.

It is raining.

It is a well known fact that the Chinese regard the turtle as a supernatural.

In the above sentences, it is not the subject, but merely a placeholder and the sentence can be re-written without it. Do it as an exercise.

Also it as a placeholder occurs frequently in statements given out by the weather station. For that reason, it is also called the weather it.

It is hot today. It will rain tomorrow. It snowed in the Arctic yesterday.



Subject – Verb Agreement – 3

We saw that when two subjects are combined together by and, we get a compound subject that takes a plural verb.

What happens when two subjects are combined using conjunctions such as or, either…or, neither…. nor?.

In such cases, the subject closest to the verb determines whether the verb is going to be singular or plural.

Oliver or his brothers are coming today.  (brothers is nearest to the verb in the sentence, so it is plural)

My brothers or my sister is coming today. (sister is nearest to the verb in the sentence, hence singular)

My sister or my brothers are coming today. (brother is nearest to the verb in the sentece, hence plural)

This is also known as the law of proximity.




Pronouns that are always singular

The following pronouns are always singular.

anyone, everyone, someone, no one, nobody

No one knows that I have the key to the riddle of the cosmos.

Everyone loves to be in the shoes of Michael Jackson

Nobody knows anything about plane crash

Anyone has heard of the horse that bolted from the

Someone is going to be punished for this terrible accident.



Pronoun – Verb Agreement – 2 – Indefinite Pronouns

The following pronouns are called as indefinite pronouns as they don’t point to anybody or anything in particular.

anyone, everyone, someone, no one, anybody, everybody, somebody, nobody, anything, everything, something, nothing.

any, one, none, some, several, all, few, fewer, many, less, little, more, much,most

each, other, another.

either, neither

Of these some of them are always singular, others are always plural, some are both singular and plural. The usage and context will decide whether they will singular or plural.

The following pronouns are always singular.

No one knows that I have the key to the riddle of the cosmos.

Nothing is known about the lions which went missing from the zoo.

Everybody looks to Messi as their football guru.

Everyone loves to be in the shoes of Michael Jackson

Nobody knows anything about plane crash

Anything goes with a cup of well-brewed coffee

Anybody has the key to the lock?

Something is seriously wrong with the conductor of the orchestra.

Someone is going to be punished for this terrible accident.

Somebody is going to tell me where to find the cakes hidden in the kitchen.





Pronoun – Verb Agreement – 1

We have seen many instances of subject-verb agreement and the rules that need to be followed when connecting them.

Now we move on to pronouns.

A pronoun should agree with the verb in the same fashion a noun agrees with its verb. Singular pronouns take singular verbs, plural pronouns take plural verbs.

He is an honest man.

She is a great teacher and has inspired many students to scale great heights in their lives.

They are coming today.

They have landed at the airport, and I am going to get them.

Refer to the following Pronoun Table to familiarize yourself with the singular and plural forms of the personal pronouns.

Subject – Verb Agreement – 6

Some plural nouns refer to singular things but are made of many parts. Use a plural verb to go with them.

The scissors are good.

The sunglasses look fashionable on you.

The trousers fit him perfectly.

Those pants were a bargain.

However, when you talk of “a pair of scissors” or a “pair of sunglasses”, use the singular verb.

A pair of scissors is a good addition to a tailor’s kit.

A pair of sunglasses lies on the table.

Other such examples are:  trousers, glasses, pliers, tongs, tweezers, binoculars, sunglasses, headphones, jeans, pyjamas, shorts, knickers.

Generally any tool, instrument or article of clothing which have two parts.


Subject – Verb Agreement – 5

Some nouns look plural, but are actually singular. For example,

A game of billiards.

Mathematics is one of the subjects you need to take in high school

Politics is the art of governance.

Economics is the social science that studies the processes that govern the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services in an exchange economy.

Economics appears to be a difficult subject, but it in reality, is very easy.

Statistics forms the basis of actuarial science.

Statistics needs to be taught in a manner that is interesting.

Statistics is both an art and a science.

Measles spreads rapidly during the rainy season.

Economics and Linguistics are great subjects.




Subject – Verb Agreement – 4

Collective nouns always take singular verbs.

The team is ready for the match.

The team arrives in five minutes, and I will be in the airport to receive them.

The suburban community is upset due to the rise in crimes.

Her entourage is on its way.

Her entourage consists of the most promising individuals of this decade.

The government is not to be trusted, because its policies are detrimental to the people of the country.

The class is dismissed because the students are unruly.

The archive needs to be deleted, as it contains computer programs that are not longer used.

The government has broken its promise to improve healthcare services for the poor.

The furniture is broken.

The furniture needs to be replaced.

The bee swarm was spotted by the farmers, when it was miles away!  (swarm is the subject, hence singular verb)

The bees were spotted by the farmers, when they were miles away!  (bees is the subject, hence plural verb)




Subject – Verb Agreement – 2

While it is generally very easy to match singular subjects to singular verbs, things can get complicated sometimes. For example when nouns are compounded, the verb should become plural.

John is going out today.

Mary is going out today.

John and Mary are going out day.

Since we have a compound subject, two nouns/pronouns joined together by a conjunction, the verb should be plural ,since now the subject consist of more than one element.

Some more examples:

Smith and Wesson are out on a date.

Edward looks great today.

Edward and Matthew look great today.

Adrian and Andrew are watching the crowds at the cinema hall.

Examples of compound subjects made up of a noun and a pronoun.

She and John Smith are out on a date.

She and the President of the USA, are close friends.

Examples of compound subjects made up of two pronouns:

He and his friends are out on a vacation.

She and her entourage are nowhere to be seen.

However, do understand that when the nouns are combined using phrases such as in addition to, together, together with, along with, as well as, they should be treated as singular. These phrases are called as additives.

For examples,

Smith, along with Wesson is out on a date.

Adrian, together with Andrew is watching the crowds at the cinema hall.

John, as well as his father, is going out today.


John and his father are going out today. (because of the compounding effect of and)