GMAT Sentence Correction: Logical Approach to Subject-Verb Agreement

Written by Kelly Granson. Posted in GMAT Study Guide

One of the mistakes GMAT Sentence Correction questions often address is the lack of subject-verb agreement. Many test takers believe that learning about subject-verb agreement requires memorizing long lists of confusing subject types; therefore they find this kind of question hard to handle. In fact, however, many subject-verb agreement problems can be worked out without any profound knowledge of rules. What they require instead is just some logical thinking.

In a correct sentence, the subject and the verb must agree in number—singular subject, singular verb form; plural subject, plural verb form. To see whether subject and verb really agree, all you need to do is find the subject and decide what form of verb it takes. GMAT usually tries to make it hard to recognize whether the subject is singular or plural or sometimes even to find the subject at all. Let's consider the following example:

The first in a series of changes introduced by the new owner were met with considerable disapproval.

Don't let the string of nouns at the beginning of the sentence confuse you. The subject here is the first, and it takes a singular verb. The correct sentence should read, The first ...WAS met with disapproval.

Once you have found the subject, the trick is knowing whether it is singular or plural. What makes a subject plural? The word and certainly does.

Jane WAS invited to Tom's birthday party.

Jane and her brother WERE invited to Tom's birthday party.

It is important to know that only and makes a subject compound. While other phrases such as in addition to, as well as, along with, together with, and accompanied by "make additions" to the subject, they do not make it compound. That means you can just ignore these expressions when determining whether to use a singular or a plural verb.

Jane, along with her brother, WAS invited to Tom's birthday party.

A phrase such as along with is often set apart by commas, showing that it is just an addition to the subject, not an actual part of it. In the example above, along with her brother can be left out without changing the "core" of the sentence. This is the reason why, despite the additive phrase, the subject remains Jane and still takes a singular verb.

When trying to solve a Sentence Correction problem, do not let the idioms of spoken English mislead you. Consider the following:

There WAS a newspaper and a couple of letters in my mailbox.

Although you come across phrases like this in spoken English, a compound subject on GMAT —in this case, a newspaper AND a couple of letters—always requires a plural verb. To make it obvious, try rearranging this sentence so that the subject comes before the verb: A newspaper and a couple of letters WAS in my mailbox. This clearly doesn't sound right. Therefore, the correct sentence should read, There WERE a newspaper and a couple of letters in my mailbox.

Another potentially confusing aspect of Sentence Correction is the use of such phrases as the number of and a number of:

A number of questions WERE raised at the meeting.

Why do we use a plural verb in the example above? A number means some or several and is used here simply to modify questions, so you can read this sentence as some questions WERE raised. Questions is the subject, not a number, and it requires a plural verb. By contrast, in such sentences as The number of questions raised at the meeting WAS surprisingly high, the subject is actually the number. What comes after the number of does not matter: it was the number that WAS high, not the questions. A bit of common logic can always help. In the first example, it was clearly questions (not a number) that were raised; in the second example, it was the number (not the questions) that was high. Make sure you identify the doer of the action (the subject) before you decide on the form of the action itself (the verb).

One more subject-verb agreement challenge you can handle by thinking rather than memorizing rules is the use of such pronouns as some, any, none, all, more, and most in "of" phrases:

None of Jane's friends HAVE come to visit her.

Most of the jam WAS eaten at breakfast.

Obviously, these pronouns can take either singular or plural verbs, depending on what comes after the preposition: friends is plural, so none of Jane's friends takes a plural verb as well. Jam, on the other hand, is singular and uncountable. We always use a singular verb with this noun and nothing changes with the addition of all, none, any, etc. Similar logic applies to using other words that denote parts and quantities:

Half of Jane's friends HAVE come to visit her. (Friends is a plural noun.)

Half of Jane's car WAS painted yellow. (Car is a singular noun)

Finally, let's look at the correct usage of each and every in GMAT Sentence Correction. In such sentences as Each of the students WAS asked to participate, the subject is each, and it clearly takes a singular verb because each individual student was asked. What happens, however, when each meets a compound subject? The verb remains singular: Each student and a teacher WAS asked to participate. This is because the subject does not refer to students and teachers as a group, but rather to a series of separate items: each student was asked individually and so was a teacher.

Hope these simple examples and explanations will help you answer the GMAT sample questions with ease.

Good luck!


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