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Here we will practice applying one of the most basic and yet also most troublesome rules of grammar: in the present tense, a verb must agree in number with its subject. Put simply, this means that we have to remember to add an -s to the verb if its subject is singular and not to add an -s if the subject is plural. It’s really not a hard principle to follow as long as we can identify the subject and verb in a sentence. Let’s have a look at how this basic rule works.

Compare the verbs (in bold) in the two sentences below:

Sadie washes and Mary dries the dishes.

My sisters wash the dishes.  

Both verbs describe a present or ongoing action (in other words, they are in the present tense), but the first verb ends in -es and the second one doesn’t.  In the first sentence, we need to add an -es to the verbs (washes and dries) because the subjects (Sadie and Mary)) are singular. We omit the final -es from the verb (wash) in the second sentence because there the subject (sisters) is plural. Remember, though, that this rule applies only to verbs in the present tense.

Here are four tips to help you apply the principle that a verb must agree in number with its subject:

  1. Add an -s to the verb if the subject is a singular noun: a word that names one person, place, or thing.
  2. Add an -s to the verb if the subject is any one of the third-person singular pronouns: he, she, it, this, that.
  3. Do not add an -s to the verb if the subject is the pronoun I, you, we, or they.
  4. Do not add an -s to the verb if two subjects are joined by and.

So, is it really that simple to make subjects and verbs agree? Well, not always. For one thing, our speech habits sometimes interfere with our ability to apply the principle of agreement. If we have a habit of dropping the final -s from words when we talk, we need to be particularly careful not to leave off the -s when we write. However, if we are writing dialogue where the character drops that “s”, (to indicate his lack of education), it would be appropriate.

Tips for Adding that S

We have to keep a certain spelling rule in mind when adding -s to a verb that ends in the letter -y: in most cases, we need to change the y to ie before adding the s. For example, the verb carry becomes carries, try becomes tries, and hurry becomes hurries. Are there exceptions? Of course. If the letter before the final -y is a vowel (that is, the letters  a, e, i, o, or u), we simply keep the y and add -s. Say becomes says, and enjoy becomes enjoys.

Now have at it. Make sure that every subject and verb are in agreement. Next week we will handle spelling issues.

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