Messy Subjects and Verbs

on February 2, 2012 in Writing & Editing

This morning, as I worked with my kids at school, I realized just how often subjects and verbs get complicated and mismatched. This happens most frequently when you have more than one noun in the subject in the sentence.

Consider the following:

One of the boys jump over the fence.

One of the boys jumps over the fence.

Which one is correct?

Let's dissect them and see:

The subject in the two sentences is the same. It's "One". "Of the boys" is modifying the subject.

So the actual sentence using just the simple subject would be:

One jump over the fence.

One jumps over the fence.

Take out the prepositional phrase and you get:

One jump.

One jumps.

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You subject is singular so you use "jumps". The second one is obviously correct when it's broken down to this level.

If the sentence changed to:

The boys jump over the fence.

Your subject would be plural and it would be appropriate to use "jump."

Consider a longer sentence where things aren’t quite as obvious:

Coming home from the race, every one of the track team members want to get an ice cream cone.

For the record, Microsoft Word didn’t flag that sentence as being written incorrectly. There is no green squiggly line underneath it, but it is most certainly wrong.

Take the sentence down the subject and verb: “One want” or if it’s easier “Every one want.”


It should be “One wants.”

If the problem is complicated enough to fool Microsoft Word (which we all know we shouldn’t and can’t rely on, but so many still do), it’s no wonder mistakes get past writers who aren’t proofreading or who aren’t as strong in the language.

Speaking very generally, a multiple subject gets a singular verb. (Boys jump.) A singular subject has what appears to be a plural verb. (Boy jumps.)

This isn't always true, of course, since like so many things in the English language, the rules are always changing.

Bottom line: Check every sentence you write to ensure that your subject and verb are in agreement. If you can't tell easily, take that sentence down to the simple subject and verb and compare. Soon you'll be comfortable with even the most convoluted sentences!

Thanks for sharing!
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Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.


  1. Brie Wallace February 3, 2012 Reply

    I use the same idea to sort out the whole I/me/myself thing. For instance, “Johnny and me” grates on a lot of people, but it’s the better choice if you remove Johnny and “me” still makes sense (e.g., “they saw me” so “they saw Johnny and me”).

    I was a linguistics major in college so I spent a lot of time parsing sentences down to the last word. LOL Fun stuff.

  2. Crystal February 3, 2012 Reply

    Nice explanation, Rebecca. One of the problems with proofreading your own writing, however, is the tendency to see what you know you wrote rather than what is really there. And yes, MS Word misses a LOT.

  3. Jane Arthur July 3, 2012 Reply

    I totally agree with your points here. No matter how updated MS Word can get, nothing beats good old manual proofreading! Thanks for posting this!

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