IELTS Grammar Essentials: Subject-Verb Agreement 

 May 15, 2024

By  Jonathan

Subject-verb agreement is a fundamental grammatical rule and a frequent source of errors for IELTS test-takers. Mastering this concept is essential for clear, accurate communication and can significantly impact your Writing and Speaking scores. This article breaks down the basics and provides strategies to ensure your subjects and verbs always ‘match’ correctly.

What is Subject-Verb Agreement?

  • The Core Rule: The verb in a sentence MUST agree with its subject in number (singular or plural).
  • Seems Simple, But… Several factors can make choosing the right verb form tricky, especially for non-native English speakers.

Common Challenges and How to Overcome Them

  1. Compound Subjects (Joined by ‘and’)
    • “The student and her professor collaborate on the research project.” (Plural subject = plural verb)
    • “Either the dog or the cat has chewed my homework.” (Singular options = singular verb)
  2. Collective Nouns
    • These words (team, committee, family) can be singular OR plural depending on context.
    • “The team meets every week.” (Team as single unit = singular verb)
    • “The team are arguing about the strategy.” (Team as individuals = plural verb)
  3. Inverted Word Order
    • Questions or stylistic choices may place the verb BEFORE the subject.
    • “Where are the keys I left on the table?” (Plural subject, even though it appears after the verb).
  4. Intervening Phrases
    • “The box of old photographs is in the attic.” (Don’t get tricked by the plural “photographs,” the subject is “box”)
  5. Nouns of Quantity
    • “Some of the coffee is left.” (“Coffee” is uncountable, hence treated as singular)
    • “A number of students were absent.” (“Number” is the subject, hence plural verb)

Tips for Spotting Errors

  • Isolate the Core Subject: Mentally remove any phrases between the subject and verb to see them clearly.
  • Read Aloud: Sometimes hearing the sentence reveals errors your eye might miss when reading silently.
  • “Test” Both Options: If unsure, try both singular and plural verb forms to see which sounds right.

IELTS-Specific Reminders

  • All Sections Matter: Even in Reading/Listening, your understanding can be hindered if you misinterpret sentences due to subject-verb errors.
  • Formal Contexts: The IELTS expects a more formal style than everyday conversation. Pay special attention in essay writing.
  • Prepositions Confuse: Phrases starting with “of” are particularly tricky, but the noun BEFORE the “of” is usually the true subject.

Practice Makes Perfect

  • Targeted Exercises: Seek out IELTS-specific grammar practice focusing on subject-verb agreement.
  • Analyze Practice Tests: Did errors in Writing/Speaking feedback involve this rule? Understand WHY you went wrong.
  • Proofread Diligently: Before submitting any writing, reread with subject-verb agreement top of mind.
  • Build Awareness: Notice correct subject-verb usage in articles, books, etc. you read outside of IELTS prep.

Why Mastering This Matters for the IELTS

  • Clarity: Incorrect agreement can make your sentences confusing or even change the meaning entirely.
  • Formal Style: Frequent errors of this type make your writing seem less polished and less academic.
  • Scoring Impact: Grammatical Range and Accuracy is one of the four main scoring aspects for both Writing and Speaking.

The Benefits Extend Beyond the Test

  • Clearer Writing: In university work, emails, or reports, correct subject-verb agreement makes your writing easier to understand.
  • Speaking Confidence: Knowing you are using verbs correctly reduces hesitation and anxiety in spoken communication.
  • Strong English Foundation: Subject-verb agreement is fundamental; mastering it means fewer errors in other related areas.

Remember: Subject-verb agreement is a skill developed through practice and awareness. Dedicating yourself to understanding the rule and its common trouble spots significantly improves your accuracy on the IELTS and your overall English language competence.

Jonathan has been teaching students to prepare for the IELTS and PTE Exams for more than 10+ years. He's taught English to students in various countries in the world including Singapore, China, Australia, Canada and Colombia.