Today, we continue our exploration of the grammar you need to know to do well on the new Writing section of the SAT. This article assumes you know the basics of sentence structure. If you need to review those a bit, check out the grammar guide article that covers them.
Faulty subject-verb agreement errors are common on the SAT and can be easily fixed if you know what you’re looking for, but that’s where these get tricky.
What is subject-verb agreement?
Every sentence must include a subject and a verb that agree with each other. What does it mean for them to agree? It means that their pluralities must match, so if the subject is a singular noun, the verb must also be singular, and if the subject is plural, the verb must also be plural. This sounds pretty simple, and it can be, but students often struggle with this concept.
Here’s a simple example:
Example 1: The boy laugh at the cat.
The verb “laugh” is clearly the action of the subject, “boy”. However, “boy” is singular and “laugh” is plural. In order to make them them match we have to add an “s” to one of them so the sentence reads like this:
Example 2: The boy laughs at the cat.
Example 3: The boys laugh at the cat.
Notice something weird? Adding an “s” to the verb makes it singular, while adding an “s” to the noun makes it plural. Never assume an “s” on a word means it’s plural!
Trimming the fluff
The above example is fairly simple because the subject and verb are placed right next to each other in the sentence. Unfortunately, most of the sentences on the SAT are not written this way. They will have “interrupting phrases” between the subject and the verb. Here’s an example:
Example 4: The boys sitting on the fence laughs at the cat.
Here, the subject and the verb are the same as in the first example, but are separated by the phrase “sitting on the fence”, which describes the boys. One of the most useful skills you can build to handle subject-verb agreement questions is the ability to spot and ignore these interrupting phrases. It is easy to see the singular noun “fence” next to the singular verb “laughs” and assume that the sentence is correct. However, the fence is not the one laughing! Double checking that your subject-verb pairs are logical can help you be confident that you are comparing the right words.
Another way to make sure you are on the right track is to cross out or ignore the interrupting phrase/phrases and read the rest of the sentence together. Look for phrases that begin with prepositions (such as of, with, or without) or verbs ending in “-ing”. Remove everything from that word to the next noun in the sentence. If what remains is not a fragment, then you have trimmed the sentence properly. If it is a fragment, you probably accidentally eliminated either the subject or verb and should try again.
We can see how this works with the same sentence from Example 4:
Example 5a: The boys
sitting on the fence laughs at the cat.
Example 5b: The boys laughs at the cat.
Without the interrupting phrase, the subject and verb end up right next to each other, which makes it a lot easier to determine if they agree or not. In this case, they do not.
Now you know the basics of tackling subject-verb agreement questions, and you’re one step closer to acing the Writing section of the SAT. Keep an eye out for opportunities to practice eliminating interrupting phrases as you continue your SAT practice.
- Subject-verb agreement requires that the pluralities of the subject and verb of a sentence match.
- To help compare subjects and verbs that may be separated within sentences, remove the interrupting phrases that come between them.
- Read the trimmed sentence to compare the pluralities of the subject and verb.