Complex Subjects and Verb Agreement

Complex subject and verb agreement

When children expand their vocabulary and begin creating more detailed sentences with complex subjects, selecting the correct verb form for present tense writing can be tricky. Subjects and verbs must agree in number. If a subject is singular, the verb must be too; if a subject is plural, the verb must be plural. If a child doesn’t know how to identify the simple subject in a complex subject, he won’t know whether the subject is singular or plural.

A complex subject is one that uses modifiers to add information to the simple subject.

Here is a complex subject with the simple subject in bold:

The giant, yellow bee in the flowers.

In the example, two adjectives and a prepositional phrase modify the simple subject.

Verb agreement with complex subjects is tricky because many times the simple subject is singular, but another plural noun is used to modify the simple subject.Look at this example:

The pizza that is covered in pepperonis tastes incredible.

*The pizza that is covered in pepperonis taste incredible.

The sentence marked with an asterisk is ungrammatical because the verb form is plural and doesn’t match the singular simple subject. However, if a child mistakenly believes that pepperonis is the subject, he might be tempted to use the plural verb form.

Complex subject verb agreements

Collective nouns are those that give a name to a group of another noun, such as a board of directors. These can also make verb agreement tricky because the collective noun is singular and what it names is plural.

The board of directors votes on the sale today.

*The board of directors vote on the sale today.

Here are some more collective nouns:

panel of experts

flock of sheep

litter of puppies/kittens

group of islands

pair of shoes

Identify the Simple Subject Game

There is a game you can play with your children that will help them learn to identify simple subjects so that they will be able to use the proper verb form for complex subjects.

1. Take a sheet of lined paper and give it to one player to start the game.

2. Have the first player write any one noun (singular or plural).

3. Pass the paper to the next player who will then add a word or phrase to the noun.

4. Have the player fold the paper so the next player it is passed to will only see the last thing that was written.

5. Continue passing the paper around, adding words or phrases and folding it so only the most recent version is seen.

6. When it gets to the last player, have him or her add a predicate with a present tense verb form he or she thinks is correct, and then read the entire sentence aloud to the group.

7. If the player’s verb form is not correct, ask the group to give their opinion about what the simple subject is.

8. Have the first player read the simple subject with the predicate.

9. Continue play by letting each player take a turn starting.

10. Play enough rounds that each player gets at least three turns reading the completed sentence.

• Works best with six to ten players.

• The sillier the added words and phrases are, the more fun the game is.


Here are some example game scenarios to guide you:

Player 1: dogs

Player 2: purple dogs

Player 3: purple dogs in tree branches

Player 4: A group of purple dogs in tree branches

Player 5: A group of dancing purple dogs in tree branches

Player 6: A group of dancing purple dogs in tree branches sings lullabies.

Player 1: cat

Player 2: The bald cat

Player 3: The bald cat who is watching movies

Player 4: The bald cat who is watching movies in his pajamas

Player 5: The barking bald cat who is watching movies in his pajamas

Player 6: The barking bald cat who is watching movies in his pajamas eats waffles.


About Laura Payne

A self-confessed language nerd, Laura Payne is the mother of two boys, and she is a part-time English teacher. She has also done freelance writing about several topics including the structure and grammar of English.


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