Hello everyone! I’m Mr Ng Guo Liang, an English Language Curriculum Specialist and Teacher at Lil’ but Mighty! In this post – the first in a series of three – we’ll be looking at what is perhaps the most important element in the English Language: Verbs.
On a practical level, it is important that you learn about verbs and understand how to use them properly because in secondary schools, and in the O level, verb-related errors will most certainly appear in the Editing component in Paper One. Additionally, the accurate use of verbs also plays a huge part in determining your grades for the Situational Writing and Continuous Writing components in Paper One, and Summary Writing in Paper 2.
However, the most important reason why we should understand verbs and use them correctly is that verbs are the ‘building blocks’ of the language; without which we really wouldn’t be able to make much sense or understand each other at all. Take the following sentence for example:
This sentence little sense to you because I not any verbs.
If you found the sentence above strange and difficult to understand, it’s because the verbs were not there. The same could be said if we do include verbs in a sentence, but do not use them correctly:
This sentence making little sense to you because I does not includes any verbs.
Once we include the verbs correctly in the exact same sentence however, things immediately fall into place and make perfect sense:
This sentence makes little sense to you because I did not include any verbs.
Although the sum of the above verbs add up to a mere three words, their exclusion from and misuse in the sentence rendered the sentence nearly incomprehensible (just imagine what it’d be like if I removed all the verbs from this blog post!).
I hope that you now see the the huge role verbs play in the English Language and in giving meaning. Before we move on, I think it’s important for you to first understand what verbs are and to also address a misconception many students have about verbs.
What Are Verbs?
In my years as an English teacher, and for all the very many times I’ve asked students this same question, I’ve always got the same answer: Verbs are actions. Whilst not entirely wrong, it is not entirely correct either.
Without a doubt, words like ‘eat’, ‘run’, ‘talk’ are all observable actions, and are thus verbs. What about words like ‘think’, ‘love’, forget’? We cannot observe these things, so can we call them verbs? Some would say they are verbs too because they are conscious or subconscious actions of sorts, only that we cannot observe these actions with our five senses – which is a fair argument. What then do we make of words like ‘own’, ‘be’, ’is’, ‘am’, ‘are’, ’have’? These words are very clearly not actions at all, but they are still verbs nonetheless! So if we only understand that ‘verbs are actions’, then we will never truly understand them for what they are. It would be useful for all of you to remember from now on that all actions are verbs (e.g. eat, speak, run) but not all verbs are actions (e.g. is, are, am, have).
Think of verbs as having the ability to morph and change their forms instead. By ‘form’ we mean the way the verb looks or is spelt. For example, the word ‘eat’ has multiple forms: ‘eat’, ‘eats’, ‘ate’, ‘eaten’, and ‘eating’. Which form should be used is really dependent on certain conditions.
That being said, rather than remembering verbs as actions, it will be more beneficial for you to remember verbs as such:
A verb is any word that can change its form based on three conditions:
The number of subjects it has
Its position in a sentence
So if a word can change its form based on either of the above conditions, then it is definitely a verb.
In this particular blog post you are currently reading, we’ll focus on the first of the three conditions: how verbs can change their forms based on the number of subjects they have. The second and third conditions will be discussed in subsequent posts.
Verbs Changing Forms Based on The Number of Subjects They Have: Subject-Verb Agreement
Now that we know what verbs are, let’s look at how a verb can change its form based on the number of subjects it has. Simply put, the ‘subject’ of a verb is the thing (it can either be a person, object, place etc.) that is doing/acting on the verb.
For any given verb, there may be one or more subjects. When there is only one, we say that the subject is singular; when there are more than one, we say that the subject is a plural one. Allow me to give you some examples to illustrate the things you have just read:
In the second and fourth examples, note that the verb form changes when the number of subject changes. Did you also notice a pattern between the subjects and verbs? We make sense when we use a singular verb to match a singular subject, and a plural verb to match a plural subject. In such instances, we say that the subjects and the verbs ‘agree’ with each other, and hence, there is what we call ‘subject-verb agreement’.
However, when a plural verb is matched with a singular subject, or when a singular verb is used for plural subjects, then we say that there is no subject-verb agreement. For instance, it would be wrong to write ‘The school are open’ or ‘They eats the apple’. The sentence is awkward due to the lack of subject-verb agreement.
Do note that subjects do not necessarily appear beside their verbs. Many students mistakenly think that the verb must come immediately after the subject. This is not the case. In longer sentences, a verb can be very far from its subject. For example:
In the example above, the subject (the school) of the verb ‘is’ is very far from it.
In summary, Subject-Verb Agreement (SVA) happens when:
A singular subject (only one) is matched with a singular verb
A plural subject (more than one) is matched with a plural verb
Let’s put what you’ve learnt so far to the test shall we?
Below is a short paragraph with a few subject-verb agreement errors. Try to see if you can find them!
How many subject-verb agreement errors did you spot? To have a look at the answers, click here.
If you managed to find four SVA errors, great job! Let’s have a look at them:
In the first two errors, the word ‘every’ tells us that although there may have been seven wives and seven kittens, we are focusing on each of them individually – singularly. Hence, the expressions ‘every wife’ and ‘every kitten’ are singular and should be paired with a singular verb. There was an error because the verb ‘have’ – which is a plural verb – was used. The verb ‘has’ should have been used instead for both.
In the third error above, the subject is only the man. What about the phrase ‘who told me about his wives, cats, kittens, and toys’ then you might ask; this phrase merely gives us more information about the subject – it doesn’t change the fact that it was still just the man who said he was coming along. Since the subject is a singular one, the singular verb ‘says’ should have been used instead of ‘say’ which is a plural verb. This is a good example of how a verb need not be immediately beside its subject and can come much later, so beware of such sentences!
In the last error, ‘people’ is very clearly a plural subject, and the verb phrase (a phrase made up of a group of words which are all verbs) which was paired with it was incorrect as it started with a singular verb ‘is’. The plural verb ‘are’ has to be used instead.
I hope that you had fun finding the errors and learning about them! (Did you manage to solve the riddle in the paragraph as well?)
Once you keep the subject-verb agreement rules in mind and apply them when checking your work, you will greatly reduce the number of SVA errors that appear in your writing, and tackling the SVA errors in the Editing component in Paper One will be much easier.
This brings us to the end of this post on verbs and subject-verb agreement. Verbs may have a ubiquitous presence in our language, but are often incorrectly used by students. This is the first part of a series of three posts I will be writing on verbs. In the posts that follow, I will focus on how verbs can change forms depending on the tense, and where they appear in a clause.
I hope that after reading and revising the contents of this and the subsequent posts that follow, you would have a better understanding of verbs and will have the skills needed to ensure that you do not make verb-related errors in your writing (which is a big deal!)
I look forward to writing and sharing the subsequent posts with you. Until then, on behalf of the Lil’ but Mighty family, stay happy, stay safe, and stay healthy!