Subject-Verb Agreement, a Rule Sometimes Broken

Subject-Verb Agreement, a Rule Sometimes Broken

Apr 02

We are taught in school that the subject and verb must be in agreement. When we say I and we combine it with the verb to be we must use am, not are or is. I are and I is are both considered incorrect English. Technically, the problem originates in what is considered incorrect English, but we will leave that for another article.

Let us look briefly at the conjugation of to be:

I am
we are

you are
you are

he/she/it is
they are

This seems uncomplicated. So let us now look at the past tense:

I was
we were

you were
you were

he/she/it was
they were

It is even simpler, since the 1st person singular and the 3rd person singular use identical forms of the verb here.

Now, we should only use was when we are using I, but there are some times when we must use were with I. For example: If I were you, I would check everything the teacher tells you to make sure it is true. We have just broken the rule of subject-verb agreement.

This may be a revelation to some. To others, there is a further protest that it must be this way and that it cannot be incorrect. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly that this is correct. I am saying that rule of subject-verb agreement should be held more loosely. It is not one of the Ten Commandments.

In spoken English, that outcast version of the language, we find further subject-verb dissonance.

I is going to get me a brand new car someday. Yes, I is!

You was at the store yesterday, wasn’t you?

You is a right smart cookie! I can see that.

We is going to be late if we don’t hurry up.

The interesting point here is that the 3rd Person Singular form of the verb is the one most widely dispersed in places it should not be. However, entire communities of people speak this way. So, it cannot be wrong. Rather, it must be a regionalism at worst.

The negative is handled quite differently, though:

He don’t want to talk to you today.

It don’t want to run.

She don’t agree with him.

In this case, it is exactly the inverse of the affirmative. When making a positive statement using the verb to be the other persons take the 3rd person singular. However, in the negative, the 3rd person singular is the only one changed, to match all the other forms.

If you want to keep your nose clean, stick to the book. Avoid regionalisms even if you were born speaking them. You cannot go wrong if you write English the way the teacher expected you to write.