Don't Let Errors Ruin Your Submissions Pt 6, Subject Agreement

Welcome to the 6th post of Don't Let Errors Ruin Your Submissions!

You might think your manuscript's fascinating story potential should rise above any typos and poor grammar, but the truth is agents and publishers receive an onslaught of submissions. They give most of these submissions a few seconds before deciding whether to pass or keep reading. That means any red flags can prompt a rejection.

Poor grammar can be a red flag!

I say "can" because there will always be the exception to the rule. Counting on being the exception to the rule is NOT a good idea. You need to clean up your submission.

Don't let errors ruin your submission's chances!

This week, we're taking a look at Rules 7 & 8 which looks at subject agreement with verbs, pronouns, appositives, or participial phrases.

7.   Make the subject and verb agree with each other not with a word that comes between them.

8.   Be sure that a pronoun, a participial phrase, or an appositive refers clearly to the proper subject.

Odds are you know these rules but might not be familiar with the grammar terms, so let's take a moment to define the terms:

  • Subject: the person, place, or thing that the sentence is about
  • Verb: a word conveying an action taken by the subject or the effect of the action or a state of beng
  • Pronoun: a word that takes the place of a noun to avoid repetition, such as I, her, she, they, etc.
  • Participial Phrase: a phrase that modifies and gives more information about a noun, such as "running to catch up, she tripped" where "running to catch up" give more information about "she"
  • Appositive: a phrase that renames the noun, such as "the manager, Amber," where "Amber" renames the manager

Subject-Verb Agreement (Rule 7)

The verb in a sentence needs to match the intended number of the subject. If the noun is singular, the verb is singular. If the noun is plural, the verb is plural.

With many regular verbs, the singular form of the verb has an -s or -es ending. The plural form of the verb does not. Yes, it is exactly opposite of the rules for plural forms of nouns.

To do this properly, we need to understand verb conjugation.

Verb Conjugation

We conjugate a verb by determining which form of the verb goes with the following subjects:
  • I (singular noun)
  • He/she/it (singular noun)
  • They/we/you (plural noun)

Regular Verbs

Dance is an example of a regular verb. Regular verbs, when conjugated, still contain a form (or main root) of the original verb within the word.
  • I dance (the verb does not have an –s added to the end of the noun when the subject
  • is I)
  • He/she/it dances
  • They/we/you dance

Irregular Verbs

Most writers run into issues with Irregular Verbs. An irregular verb does not contain the main root of the verb within its conjugation forms.

Examples of irregular verbs include "to be" and "to have."  The present and past tense conjugations of to be are:

Present Tense
  • I am
  • He/she/it is
  • They/we/you are
Past Tense
  • I was
  • He/she/it was
  • They/we/you were

The Most Common Mistake

When the verb does not immediately follow the noun, you might choose the wrong verb form. Microsoft Word's grammar checker gets this incorrect most of the time because it's only looking at the noun closest to the verb.
  • The cart, as well as its contents, were gone. (incorrect)
  • The cart, as well as its contents, was gone. (correct)
The subject of this sentence is the cart so "was" is the proper verb. Contents is plural but not the subject of this sentence, so "were" is incorrect.

Clear Reference to Subject (Rule 8)


The key to proper pronoun agreement is making sure you use a pronoun that fits the noun it's renaming.
  • Jane went to the store, and Bob went with her. They left just a few minutes ago.
"Her" refers to Jane. They refers to Jane and Bob.*
  • I tried to see the full moon tonight, but it was hidden by clouds.
"It" refers to the moon.

Where I see the biggest issues with this rule is the use of who and that. If it refers to a person use "who." If it refers to an object use "that."

Participial Phrases

Let's take the example from the definition of this term and see what agreement with the subject looks like:
  • Running to catch up, the pothole tripped her up. (Incorrect)
  • Running to catch up, she tripped over a pothole. (Correct)
The participial phrase "running to catch up" refers to the noun that follows it. The pothole was not running to catch up, so the first sentence is incorrect. The second sentence places the phrase with the correct noun.


Appositives are similar to paticipial phrases in that they provide more information about a noun.
  • The manager, Amber, is going to speak to us today.
In this case, "Amber" is the appositive because it clarifies who the manager is.

The main thing to remember is the appositive comes after the noun and if it's not essential to the meaning of the sentence, it's set off with commas.

You can have an appositive phrase that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. In that case, you don't use commas to set it off from the rest of the sentence.
  • My sister Jillian can't eat peanuts. 
If I have several sisters, it's important to indicate which one can't eat peanuts.  That makes her name essential to the sentence's meaning.

Previous Posts

If you've missed the previous 5 posts in this series, never fear!

Part 1: an overview of the top 11 grammar rules to follow

Part 2a look at compound sentences and punctuation

Part 3: an exploration of proper comma usage

Part 4: an overview of the proper use of apostrophes to indicate possessive nouns

Part 5: an explanation of dialogue punctuation

Next week, we'll look at rule 9 that discusses how to properly use lists in your writing. Yes, that does mean we'll tackle the oxford comma among other things.

Questions? Leave them in the comments!

* The pronoun examples are just for explanation, nothing more. Some people prefer a different pronoun.

 Image courtesy of Pete Linforth/


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