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Grammar for the AWA: Subject-Verb Agreement

Your ability to cogently state and ably defend a position is critical to your AWA score. But even if you add to that a tight structure and a logical flow between sentences, you aren’t necessarily assured a ‘6’, or even a ‘5’. Lurking in the shadows of your prose is something just as important—grammar.

Of course if you make many grammatical flubs your grammar will be anything but lurking; it will be front and center marring the quality of your prose.

While it would be downright hubristic and quixotic (and probably a bunch of other  ‘-ic’ GRE words) for me to claim that you will become an instant grammar maven once you read this post, by avoiding just the mistake below, you will clean up your prose and allow the GRE essay readers to focus less on how you express yourself and more on what you express.

This first post, which is on subject-verb agreement, will be the first in a series of grammar tips for writing your AWA essays. By the time you’ve finished, making sure you have a solid grasp of each point, your writing will be much more polished.


Subject-verb agreement

Subject-verb agreement may quite possibly be the number one mistake to look out for. Speaking of which, take a look at the following three sentences to see if you can spot which one contains incorrect subject-verb agreement.

(A)  Understanding the consequences of overeating and lack of exercise are important to those who hope to lose weight.

(B)  The number of athletes caught for using performance-enhancing drugs have been steadily increasing over the last several years.

(C)  The team of scientists, emboldened by their claims of extraterrestrial life forms, were embarrassed to learn that their original results had been based on false premises.

If you noticed that all three are incorrect, then give yourself a high-five (which I guess would be tantamount to clapping once). On the other hand, if you didn’t spot the subject-verb agreement, you are not alone. I’d say over 90% of the general English-speaking population would have failed to spot all three errors.

So here are a few things to keep in mind for how subject-verb agreement works.

1)     The subject almost always comes before the preposition(s).

Or to put it more grammar wise, the subject is usually the head of a noun phrase. For instance, in the following phrase, The increase in the number of homeowners, the subject is ‘increase.’ Note how ‘increase’ comes before the other noun ‘homeowners.’ This noun is the object of the preposition ‘of.’ The other noun, ‘number’ is the object of the preposition ‘in.’ The actual subject of the sentence, however, is neither ‘homeowners’  nor ‘number.’ The subject is the noun that comes before the preposition, or in this case, the prepositions. Therefore, the subject is ‘increase’ and any verb that comes in front of ‘homeowners’ will actually take the singular case (e.g., The increase in the number of homeowners is an auspicious sign for those hoping for a recovery in the housing market.).

2)     Collective subjects almost always take the singular case

‘Government’, ‘band’, and ‘team’ imply a group of people. Nonetheless each is singular. So while it may sound natural to say, The band are coming to town, The team of five men are playing well, in both cases the verb should be ‘is’, not ‘are.’

Going back to (C) from our three little sample sentences above, notice the subject ‘team.’ It is singular. Even though all these plural nouns are lumped after it (‘scientists’, ‘claims’, ‘life forms’), the subject is still ‘team.’ Therefore the verb should be ‘was.’

3)     A phrase that communicates just one idea, even if that idea has plural subjects, is singular

Take a look at sentence (A) above. Even though the phrase contains, ‘consequences’, and both ‘overeating’ and ‘lack of exercise’, it is one simple idea. For instance substitute either the word ‘The idea that’ or ‘the notion that’ at the beginning of the sentence:

The idea that understanding the consequences of overeating and lack of exercise is important to those who hope to lose weight.

Therefore the subject is singular and the verb, as underlined in the sentence above, should be ‘is.’

This is the subject-agreement error I would worry about least. It is the most subtle, and therefore if you do flub it, doing so will not be as glaring as flubbing it in the ways outlined in 1) and 2).

Stay tuned for more grammar posts like this one. In the meantime, if you want even more practice on getting your grammar up to snuff, check out Magoosh’s English, where yours truly (that’s me!) helps you differentiate a gerund from participial phrases, semi-colons from colons.


By the way, students who use Magoosh GRE improve their scores by an average of 8 points on the new scale (150 points on the old scale.) Click here to learn more.

12 Responses to Grammar for the AWA: Subject-Verb Agreement

  1. uthara July 2, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    In your video for AWA, you have mentioned making spelling mistakes can influence ones score. I tend to have spelling problems mainly with easy every day words, especially combining it with a extremely short time frame, it gets worse. Words like believe, government, their, thesis etc. Even when editing it is difficult to spot such mistakes.
    I am trying to fix those issues by making a note of my mistakes and trying to be more cautious. My question is, if I write a great essay but make those small mistakes will it significantly affect my score.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 3, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

      Hi Uthara,

      If your writing and essay are strong, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. It’s when the spelling is so off that the grader is unsure what you are trying to say that your score will suffer drastically. Mispelling words (like “misspelling”) def. won’t help and may drop you half a point or so, but they definitely won’t be your undoing.

      Hope that helps!

      • Uthara July 3, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

        Great thank you very much Chris.

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele July 5, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

          You are welcome!

      • Bhumica July 31, 2016 at 4:42 am #

        hii sir my essays are very weak ..
        I m gud at spellings but my writing is poor

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 2, 2016 at 10:54 am #

          It sounds like you need to work on the bigger aspects of your AWA Writing— things like structure, grammar,a nd so on. I sugges tyou look at our model templates for the Argument and Issue tasks, and our overview of how to improve AWA.

  2. simon January 3, 2013 at 11:41 pm #

    Do You like to add AWA in your package? I know it is an arduous job but you can put some limitation. For example you can say with each package we only offer 10 AWA for individually. In this way you can help us to. AWA without exercising and help is so complicated for achieving. Your package will improve because I do not know any online education that have AWA as a part.

    Best for Your group

    • Margarette Jung
      Margarette January 4, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

      Hi, Simon

      While we do have AWA lesson videos and practice essays, we will probably not be offering essay grading anytime soon, since you’e right, it is very time-intensive, and it’s hard to define what grading 1 essay will entail, since there could be a lot of back-and-forth.

      We do take general questions on essay structure and approach as part of our package, so if you have any of those, we’d be happy to help.

      Thank you for your suggestion, and feel free to let me know if you have any other questions! 🙂


  3. Leo December 30, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    Look forward to the AWA series!!!

    I have a dilemma now, English is not my first language and I found it was extremely difficult for me to use advance English words in AWA. I knew this vocabularies, but I can’t actively use them, any suggestions?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris January 2, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

      Hi Leo,

      This is a good question. I think many on the web believe that simply using GRE vocabulary in the AWA essays will boost your writing score. So you’re on the right track: it’s about using the words correctly. But there is another way of looking at it: not using impressive sounding words like infinitesimal and proclivity isn’t going to hurt your score. Stick to essay structure, coherency of ideas, and persuasiveness/specificity of examples and you should do fine :).

  4. arun December 17, 2012 at 9:13 am #


    Does verbal package includes AWA?. If not AWA comes under which package?.

    Thank you,

    • Margarette Jung
      Margarette December 17, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

      Hi, Arun

      The Verbal subscription includes our AWA lessons, as does our Premium subscription. I hope that helps! 🙂

      Let me know if you have any questions!


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