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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 , where yours truly (that’s me!) helps you differentiate a gerund from participial phrases, semi-colons from colons.


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