How to Avoid Subject-Verb Agreement Traps on ACT English | Tips & Strategies

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How to Avoid Subject-Verb Agreement Traps on ACT English

how-to-avoid-subject-verb-agreement-traps

Subject-verb agreement questions on the ACT English are less common than punctuation questions, but because you are going to encounter at least a couple of them on every ACT English section, understanding this rule can help you improve your ACT English score.

The grammar rule itself is simple, but ACT finds a way to make the questions tricky and challenging. In this article, we will go over tips and strategies to avoid subject-verb traps of ACT English.

What is a Subject?

The subject of a sentence is the noun (person, place, thing, or idea) that corresponds to the verb in the sentence.

In a sentence that has action, the subject is the noun that does the action.

For example:

My dog always growls at the mailman.

What is a subject? My dog. Why? Because he is the one that does the growling.

In a sentence with description, usually using the verb “to be,” the subject is the noun being described.  

            My dog is a Golden Retriever.

Again, the subject of the sentence is “my dog” because he is the one that is described as a Golden Retriever.

Subject-Verb Agreement

How to Avoid Subject-Verb Agreement Traps on ACT English

The subject-verb agreement rule states that all verbs must agree with their subjects by number. If a subject is singular – use a singular verb; if a subject is plural – use a plural verb.  

The ACT tests most subject-verb agreement questions in the third-person singular (he/she/it/one) and third-person plural (they) form. In the present and present perfect verb tenses, third person singular verbs end in an “-s,” while third-person plural verbs do not end in an “-s.”

For example (third-person singular sentence in present tense):

Incorrect:         The bored student play games.

Correct:           The bored student plays games.

While you may have intuitively known how to correct this sentence and went by what “sounds right,” you should really know why the first version of this sentence was incorrect (if for no other reason than because the ACT English questions dealing with subject-verb agreement are never this easy). The subject of this sentence is “The bored student.” He or she is the person who does the playing. In addition, since we’re referring to one bored student, the subject is singular. Because the subject is singular, the verb should be singular too. In the present tense, singular form of the verb “play” is “plays.”

Let’s look at an example with a plural subject.

Incorrect:         The dancers performs in a variety of genres.

Correct:           The dancers perform in a variety of genres.

The subject of this sentence is “dancers,” meaning more than one. “Dancers” is the subject because they are the ones doing the performing. Plural nouns require plural verbs. The plural form of the verb “performs” is “perform.”

Although this rule seems simple and straightforward, the ACT will ask subject-verb agreement questions about complex sentences with not-so-obvious errors.

What Makes Subject-Verb Agreement Questions Challenging on the ACT?

How to Avoid Subject-Verb Agreement Traps on ACT English

In our example sentences above, the construction was always subject + verb… However, when you encounter subject-verb agreement questions on the ACT, the most difficult ones will not have this construction. Instead, the subject will be either separated from a verb by an appositive, a non-essential clause, or a preposition phrase and, sometimes, the sentence will be inverted and the subject will follow the verb. Let’s talk about common ACT Tricks in more detail.

Trick #1: Interrupting Phrases

Interrupting phrases are phrases that separate the subject from its verb and make identifying the subject and determining the corresponding verb tense more challenging. If you have difficulty understanding all the grammar terms, read our article about parts of speech. Here, you should recognize and understand the effect interrupting phrases have on subject-verb agreement questions.

Prepositional Phrases

The prepositional phrase is the most commonly used interrupting phrase on the ACT English. Basically, the prepositional phrase is the phrase that begins with a preposition. Prepositions are words that provide additional details about nouns and answer questions “when?”, or “where?” Some of the commonly used prepositions are:

how-to-avoid-subject-verb-agreement-traps-common-preopositions

http://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-a-preposition-definition-uses-examples.html

The ACT English frequently places prepositional phrases between a subject and a corresponding verb to distract you from recognizing errors in subject-verb agreement.  Let’s look at an example:

The apples in the fruit basket is overly ripe.

First, identify the subject. Subject is “the apples.” The phrase “in the fruit basket” is a prepositional phrase that begins with the word “in.” The prepositional phrase describes where the apples are. The ACT tries to trick you by placing a singular noun “basket” right in front of a singular verb “is.” However, the subject of the sentence – “apples” is plural, so the verb should be in the plural form, i.e. “are.” The corrected version of this sentence is:

The apples in the fruit basket are overly ripe.

So how do you make sure to avoid this common trick?

·      ACT Example

Let’s test this strategy on a question from an actual ACT exam.

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how-to-avoid-subject-verb-agreement-traps

First, let’s identify the prepositional phrase “for both types of kayaks” and physically cross it out.

Equipment for both types of kayaks are similar, …

We are left with “Equipment are similar” which cannot be correct because equipment is a singular noun subject of the sentence. A singular subject must be paired with a singular verb in the same tense. The current verb “are” is plural and must be replaced with a singular verb “is.”

Looking back at the question, we can be confident in saying that there is an error in subject-verb agreement and the right answer is G.

Non-essential clauses and Appositives

In subject-verb agreement questions, non-essential clauses and appositives serve the same purpose as the prepositional phrases – they separate the subject of the sentence from the verb.

Non-essential clauses describe a noun, often the subject of the sentence; they are surrounded by commas and can be removed without creating grammatical errors or changing the meaning of the sentence. Let’s look at an example:

My dog, who is very lovable, barks for attention.

The non-essential clause “who is very lovable” is set off by commas and provides descriptive information about my dog. Removing this phrase does not cause any grammatical errors, or changes the meaning of the sentence.

My dog, who is very lovable, barks for attention.

It’s important to note, however, that the subject-verb agreement error can occur within the non-essential clause itself.

Summer activities, which is a lot of fun, end in a few short months.

The verb within the non-essential clause “is,” corresponds with the subject of the sentence “summer activities.” Because the subject is plural, all verbs corresponding to that subject must also be plural.

Summer activities, which are a lot of fun, end in a few short months.

Non-essential clauses always start with a relative pronoun (which, whose, where, or who). An appositive serves the same function as a non-essential clause but does not have a verb or start with a relative pronoun.

My dog, a very lovable animal, barks for attention.

The appositive provides descriptive information about the subject of the sentence and can be removed without altering the meaning or grammar of the sentence.

Non-essential clauses and Appositives (cont’d)

The ACT will commonly place non-essential clauses and appositives in the middle of a sentence to separate subject and verb and make the subject-verb agreement errors less obvious.

Let’s look at an ACT-like example with an underlined subject and bolded verb:

My teacher, who is kind to his students, help me understand the material.

Here, the subject is “my teacher” which is singular, and the verb is “help” which is plural. The non-essential clause “who is extremely knowledgeable” describes “my teacher.” Crossing it out, leaves us with

My teacher, who is kind to his students, help me understand the material.

…and makes the subject-verb agreement error apparent. The correct form of this sentence is:

My teacher, who is kind to his students, helps me understand the material.

When encountering a similar sentence on the ACT, many students assume that the subject of the sentence is “students” because it is the word closest to the verb. While “students” is plural, the actual subject of the sentence is “teacher” which is singular. You can avoid being tricked by the ACT if you can correctly identify the subject of the sentence.

Strategy

How to Avoid Subject-Verb Agreement Traps on ACT English

Rule: A subject will NEVER be contained within a prepositional phrase, a non-essential clause, or an appositive.  

If you cross out the interrupting phrase, the sentence should still be grammatically correct.

The apples in the fruit basket is overly ripe.

Or

My teacher, who is kind to his students, help me understand the material.

Now that we eliminated the interrupting phrase, the verb follows the subject and the mistake in the subject-verb agreement is immediately obvious.

Physically crossing out the interrupting phrase (prepositional phrase, non-essential clause, an appositive) will help you identify the true subject of the sentence more easily, determine if there is an error in the subject-verb agreement, and avoid a common ACT English trap.

·      ACT Example

how-to-avoid-subject-verb-agreement-traps

how-to-avoid-subject-verb-agreement-traps

 

As you can see, the non-essential clause is surrounded by dashes (which have the same purpose as commas in this case). For more information about punctuation of dashes, see our article on other punctuation – everything by the commas. This means that the question is actually testing two concepts at once – subject-verb agreement, prepositional phrase, non-essential clause, and punctuation. If we cross out the prepositional phrase “of letters” and the non-essential clause “many over 1,500 words in length,” we are left with:

Dickinson’s last twenty years of letters – many over 1,500 words in length – reveals the breadth and depth of …

From here, it is pretty easy to tell that the subject of the sentence is “years” which is plural should be paired with the verb “reveals” in its plural form.

The correct version of this sentence is:

Dickinson’s last twenty years of letters – many over 1,500 words in length – reveal the breadth and depth of …

… and the correct answer is B.

Essential Clauses with “That”

How to Avoid Subject-Verb Agreement Traps on ACT English

Once in a while you may come across a subject-verb agreement error that involves a clause with the word “that.” If you’ve read our article on parts of speech, or from prior knowledge, you know that “that” is a pronoun which is never offset with commas. However, the treatment of an interrupting phrase beginning with the word “that” should be treated exactly the same as the other interrupting phrases. For example,

A building that has intricate design and architectural features are fun to look at.

If we cross out the clause …

A building that has intricate design and architectural features are fun to look at.

… we are left with:

A building are fun to look at.

This sentence has a subject-verb agreement error that can be corrected to read:

A building is fun to look at.

Trick #2: Subject After the Verb

How to Avoid Subject-Verb Agreement Traps on ACT English

The ACT uses this, much less common, approach to complicate subject-verb agreement questions. In these cases, the usual (subject + verb) construction of the sentence is changed: a prepositional phrase appears in the beginning of the sentence and a subject follows the verb. In this construction, it can be especially difficult to identify the subject of the sentence and determine if there is an error in subject-verb agreement. Let’s look at an example:

Incorrect:         In my closet, resides seven unworn sweaters.

We know that a subject cannot be inside a prepositional phrase. We also know that the subject is the noun that is doing the action. In this sentence – what’s residing? The sweaters. The prepositional phrase provides information about where the sweaters are residing. Because the subject is plural (sweaters), the corresponding verb should also be in plural form.

Correct:           In my closet, reside seven unworn sweaters.

Trick #2: Subject After the Verb (cont’d)

This correctly written sentence sounds awkward, right? That is because the singular noun “closet” is placed right next to the plural verb “reside.” If you focus only on “what sounds right” you might miss that the singular form verb “resides” (in the original sentence) does not correspond to the singular noun closet. Instead, focus on the rules and the content that a subject and its corresponding verb must be in the same tense.

In very, very rare situations, you may come across a sentence on ACT English where a subject comes after a verb but is not preceded by a prepositional phrase.

Incorrect:         Skipping school is fun, but less fun is its consequences.

In this sentence, ask yourself – what is less fun? The consequences. This means that in the second clause “consequences” is the subject. The verb “is” corresponds to the subject “consequences.” We know that the subject and the verb must be in the same tense and we notice that, in this sentence, the subject is plural but the verb is singular. This means that we have to change the verb to its plural form “are.”

Correct:           Skipping school is fun, but less fun are its consequences.

Strategy

How to Avoid Subject-Verb Agreement Traps on ACT English

To help yourself navigate these confusing sentences, rearrange the sentences in the “normal / traditional” structure of subject followed by verb. This strategy will allow you to catch errors in the subject-verb agreement more easily.

Using this method with the incorrectly written sentence above, you would get: “its consequences is less fun.” The plural subject is now right next to the singular verb and the error should be immediately obvious.

Trick #3. Compound Subjects

A compound subject is a subject in which two nouns are connected by the word “and.” In sentences with a compound subject, you should use the plural form of the verb.

Correct:           Potato chips and cupcakes are bad for you.

Because the subjects are both “Potato chips” and “cupcakes,” the corresponding verb should be used in plural form “are.”

Incorrect:         By the living room door is a backpack and boots.

First, rearrange the sentence so that the subject comes before the verb. What is by the living room door? A backpack and boots. After rearranging, the sentence should read: “A backpack and boots is by the living room door.” The subject is both “a backpack” and “boots;” therefore, the verb should be in plural form.

Correct:           By the living room door are a backpack and boots.

Summary: Subject-Verb Agreement Strategy on ACT English

In this article we have talked about tricks that are commonly used on ACT English to make relatively simple and straightforward subject-verb agreement questions more difficult. Let’s recap:

·      Look for subject-verb agreement errors when the verb is underlined.

·      Singular and plural forms of the same verb in the answer choices may signal a possible subject-verb agreement question.

You can frequently figure out what a question is testing by looking at the answer choices and the underlined word or phrase. If you see the same verb in both singular and plural form in the answer choices, make sure to read the sentence carefully and check if there is a subject-verb agreement.

·      Identify the subject first

Both subjects of sentences and subjects of clauses must agree with their verbs. Find the noun that corresponds to each specific verb. Then, determine if the subject is singular or plural and make sure that the verbs agree.

·      The Subject is NEVER part of a prepositional phrase.

One of the ways the ACT tries to trick you is to place a prepositional phrase that ends on a noun right between the subject of the sentence and its verb. Remember the strategy of physically crossing out the prepositional phrase to help you see the subject of the sentence much more clearly. Remember that after crossing out the prepositional phrase, the remaining sentence must make grammatical sense. If it doesn’t you crossed out the wrong thing.

·      Practice to Recognize Commonly Used Tricks.

It is helpful to know what types of tricks the ACT uses. The more familiar you are with these tricks, the faster and easier you can recognize them and use appropriate strategies to answer subject-verb agreement questions correctly. This familiarity and quickness comes with consistent practice over time.

 Next Steps

Now that you are comfortable with subject-verb agreement questions on the ACT, make sure to get familiar with what’s actually tested on ACT English. If you need a refresher about punctuation, read this article about commas and this article about punctuation such as colons, semicolons, and dashes.

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