Verb Inflection Simplified: How to Match Person and Number

Ever stumbled upon sentences that just didn’t sound right? Chances are, the verbs were to blame. Just like knowing the secret ingredients in a recipe, understanding person and number in verb inflection is crucial as it ensures a seamless cohesion.


In this blog, we will delve into the significance of person and number in grammar and provide some writing strategie

First things first, let’s do a refresher on verb inflection. Verb inflection is when verbs change their form to match the subject of the sentence.

This means verbs can look different depending on who is doing the action (person) and how many people are involved (number). Sounds tricky? Don’t worry, it’s simpler than it seems.

Understanding Person in Verb Inflection

Let’s break down the concept of person in grammar. There are three types:

First Person

This is when the subject is the one speaking; when you are talking about yourself. It’s like saying, Hey, I’m the one doing this! Singular (I am), Plural (We are).

♦ I write
♦ We write.

Second Person

This is when the subject is the one being spoken to; talking to someone else.

♦ You write.

Whether you’re talking to one person or many, it’s the same: You write.

Third Person

This is when the subject is someone or something else. Singular (he/she/it is), Plural (they are).

♦ He writes
♦ She writes
♦ They write

It’s like pointing out, they are doing this!

Understanding Number in Verb Inflection

Next up is number which tells us if the subject is singular (one) or plural (more than one).

Singular

When there is one person or thing.

♦ She writes.

Plural

When there are multiple people or things.

♦ They write.

Combining Person and Number

Now, let’s see how person and number work together to change the form of a verb. Here’s a handy chart to help you out:

Person Singular Form Plural Form
First Person I write We write
Second Person You write You write
Third Person He/She/It writes They write

Notice how the verb changes in the third person singular (he/she/it writes) but stays the same in other forms.

Personal Endings

The endings that show the person and number of a verb are called personal endings.

Present Tense

In the present tense, a verb has two personal endings:

♦ ‘est’ for the second person singular (you)
♦ ‘s’ for the third person singular (he, she, it).

The first person singular (I) and all forms of the plural (we, you, they) use the simplest form of the verb with no personal ending.

Past Tense

In the past tense, there is only one personal ending:

♦ ‘est’ or ‘st’ for the second person singular (you).

These forms in est or st are mostly used in poetry and formal language. In everyday language, we use the second person plural (you) to address a single person.

Here’s a table showing the personal endings for the present and past tense:

Personal Endings

Present Tense Past Tense
Singular Plural Singular Plural
1. none 1. none 1. none 1. none
2. -est, -st 2. none 2. -est, -st 2. none
3. -s 3. none 3. none 3. none

Conguating Verbs

When a verb changes its form based on tense, person, or number, it is called conjugation. When we modify the form of a verb to match the subject, we are conjugating it.

Conjugating Walk (Weak Verb)

Present Tense Past Tense
Singular Plural Singular Plural
1. I walk 1. We walk 1. I walked 1. We walked
2. You walk 2. You walk 2. You walked 2. You walked
3. He/She/It walks 3. They walk 3. He/She/It walked 3. They walked

Conjugating Find (Strong Verb)

Present Tense Past Tense
Singular Plural Singular Plural
1. I find 1. We find 1. I found 1. We found
2. You find 2. You find 2. You found 2. You found
3. He/She/It finds 3. They find 3. He/She/It found 3. They found

Conjugating the Copula ‘To Be’

Present Tense Past Tense
Singular Plural Singular Plural
1. I am 1. We are 1. I was 1. We were
2. You are 2. You are 2. You were 2. You were
3. He/She/It is 3. They are 3. He/She/It was 3. They were

Conjugation of the Copula is the term used to describe how the verb to be modifies its form to agree with various subjects in terms of person and number. The copula verb to be is used to join the subject of a sentence with a subject complement, which can be a noun, adjective, or phrase that describes or identifies the subject.

Special Rules of Number and Person

When the subject is made up of more than one part, the verb’s number (singular or plural) follows these rules:

Using ‘And’

A subject with and usually takes a plural verb.

♦ My brother and sister play tennis.
♦ The governor and the mayor are cousins.

Using ‘Or’ or ‘Nor’

A subject with or or nor takes a singular verb if the parts are singular.

♦ Either my brother or my sister will win.
♦ Neither the governor nor the mayor favours this appointment.

Single Idea With ‘And’

Sometimes, a subject with and that means one single idea takes a singular verb.

 ♦ The sum and substance of the matter is this.

Note: This is rare in modern writing and mostly found in idiomatic phrases like the long and short of it. Poets use it more freely

Different Number or Person With ‘Or’ or ‘Nor’

If the parts of the subject are different in number or person, the verb usually matches the closer part.

 ♦ Either you or he is to blame.
♦ Neither you nor he is an Austrian.
♦ Neither John nor we were at home.

However, in casual speech, this can vary. Careful writers avoid this by rewriting the sentence:

 ♦ One of you two is to blame.
♦ Neither of you is an Austrian.
♦ Both John and we were away from home.

When the Verb Matches the Singular Subject

In these examples, the subject is not compound, so the verb matches the singular subject:

♦ The governor with his staff is present.
♦ Sanjay, as well as Teherah, is in London.
♦ Seth, along with his friends Andre and Sal, is taking a sail.

Plural Nouns with A Singular Verb

Some nouns look plural but actually mean one thing and usually take a singular verb:

♦ Economics is an important study.
♦ The gallows has been abolished in Massachusetts.

For some words, usage can vary. For example, pains (meaning effort) can be either singular or plural:

♦ Great pains has (or have) been taken about the matter.

Collective Nouns

Depending on how the group is perceived, collective nouns can be paired with either a singular or plural verb.
Use a singular verb when the group is one unit.
Use a plural verb when thinking of the individuals in the group.

♦ The Senior Class requests the pleasure of your company. (Here, the class is one unit.)
♦ The Senior Class cannot agree upon a president. (Here, the class is individual members.)
♦ The nation welcomes Prince Charlie. (The entire nation is one unit.)

The terms strong and weak were originally used because strong verbs seemed to change form on their own, while weak verbs needed an extra ending (like ed, d, or t).

‘A Number’ vs. ‘The Number’

A number in the sense of several or many regularly takes the plural; the number takes the singular.

♦ A number of sailors were loitering on the pier.
♦ The number of tickets is limited.

Half, Part, and Portion

Words like half, part, and portion can take either a singular or plural verb based on what they mean in the sentence.

♦ Half of a circle is a semicircle.
♦ Half of the passengers were lost.

Relative Pronouns

A verb that follows a relative pronoun (like that or which) matches the person and number of the noun it refers to. Mistakes often happen in sentences like these:

♦ This is one of the strangest sights that ever were seen. (The verb were is plural because it refers to sights, not one.)
♦ Mr. Woo’s oration was among the most eloquent that have been delivered in this state for many years. (Use have because it refers to oration, which is plural in context.)
♦ This is one of the finest paintings there are in the hall. (Use are because it refers to paintings.)

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Exercises for Person and Number Verb Inflection

Take a moment to choose the proper verb with regards to proper number and person.

  1. She (run/runs) every morning.
  2. They (is/are) going to the park.
  3. I (am/are) excited about the trip.
  4. We (play/plays) soccer on weekends.
  5. He (do/does) his homework after school.
  6. You (is/are) my best friend.
  7. The cat (chase/chases) the mouse.
  8. My friends (visit/visits) me often.
  9. It (rain/rains) heavily during the monsoon.
  10. The teacher (explain/explains) the lesson clearly.
  11. They (has/have) been to Paris.
  12. The dog and the cat (is/are) playing together.
  13. Either John or his sister (is/are) coming to the party.
  14. Neither the teacher nor the students (was/were) ready for the test.
  15. Everyone in the class (want/wants) to go on the field trip.
  16. The team (is/are) winning their game.
  17. A bouquet of flowers (make/makes) the room look pretty.
  18. Some of the cookies (was/were) eaten.
  19. One of the books (is/are) missing.
  20. The police (is/are) investigating the case.
Click on the + button for the answers
  1. She runs every morning.
  2. They are going to the park.
  3. I am excited about the trip.
  4. We play soccer on weekends.
  5. He does his homework after school.
  6. You are my best friend.
  7. The cat chases the mouse.
  8. My friends visit me often.
  9. It rains heavily during the monsoon.
  10. The teacher explains the lesson clearly.
  11. They have been to Paris.
  12. The dog and the cat are playing together.
  13. Either John or his sister is coming to the party.
  14. Neither the teacher nor the students were ready for the test.
  15. Everyone in the class wants to go on the field trip.
  16. The team is winning their game.
  17. A bouquet of flowers makes the room look pretty.
  18. Some of the cookies were eaten.
  19. One of the books is missing.
  20. The police are investigating the case.

Ten Tips for Person and Number Verb Inflection

1. Match the Verb to the Subject: Always ensure your verb agrees with the subject in both number (singular/plural) and person (first, second, third).
2. Identify the Subject Correctly: Be clear about who or what is performing the action in your sentence to choose the right verb form.
3. Watch for Compound Subjects: When subjects are joined by “and,” use a plural verb.
4. Either/Or and Neither/Nor: When subjects are joined by “or” or “nor,” the verb agrees with the closer subject.
5. Collective Nouns: Collective nouns like “team” or “family” can take either singular or plural verbs depending on whether the group acts as one unit or as individuals.
6. Indefinite Pronouns: Words like “everyone,” “someone,” and “nobody” are singular and take singular verbs.
7. Nouns Ending in -s: Some nouns that end in -s but are singular in meaning, like “news” or “mathematics,” take singular verbs.

8. Context Matters: Sometimes, the context can determine if a verb should be singular or plural. Consider the meaning behind the words.
9. Titles and Names: Titles of books, movies, or names of organizations that are plural in form but singular in meaning take singular verbs.
10. Inverted Sentences: In sentences where the subject follows the verb, ensure the verb still agrees with the subject.

Last Words on Person and Number Verb Inflection

A verb must match its subject in both number and person. Verbs, like nouns, have two numbers (singular and plural) and three persons (first, second, and third).

♦ Singular means one person or thing.
♦ Plural means more than one person or thing.
♦ First person is the speaker (I or we).
♦ Second person is the person being spoken to (you).
♦ Third person is the person or thing being talked about (he, she, it, or they).

And there you have it! A crash course on person and number in verb inflection. Remember, getting your verbs right makes your writing clear and engaging.

Happy writing!

Linda

 

Feature Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

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