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What Does "Subject-Verb Agreement" Mean?

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/17/2013

If you're a teacher, you've written admonitions about this on many a quiz. If you're a student of Spanish, you may have wondered what your teacher meant. This lesson explains what subject-verb agreement is all about and gives an easy to remember example.

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    Subjects

    In order to understand subject-verb agreement, you first need to know what a subject and a verb are.

    Let’s start with subjects. When we use the word subject in a grammatical sense, we do not mean topic. How do we tell the difference? Consider the following sentence:

    The man bought a new wallet.

    Depending on many factors, the topic could be shopping, new wallets versus old ones or wallets. But the only doer or performer of an action in this example is the man.

    Grammatically speaking, subjects perform an action. In Spanish, subjects may be singular or plural. Subjects are either nouns, which are names, labels if you wish, that identify a person, for instance John, he, I, they, you. A subject does not have to be a human being. It could be an animal, such as Rover, dog, elephant. It could be a plant, as in the rose. It could be a thing, like a corkscrew or a broom. It could even be an abstraction like love or envy. So, any and all nouns are eligible to be the grammatical subject of a sentence. Here are a couple of the examples above used as grammatical subjects:

    John lives on 15 Avenue.

    They clean the house on Saturdays.

    Pronouns may also be grammatical subjects. Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns, and when a pronoun is used as a subject in Spanish, it will use its subject form. As you’ll learn in other lessons, there are other forms for other grammatical situations. As in English, in Spanish there are only a handful of subject pronouns.

    By arranging these subject forms in a certain pattern, with the singular ones on the left and the plural ones on the right, we create a sort of pigeonhole arrangement. The pattern it creates has three boxes on the left for the three singular forms and three on the right for the plural ones. Also, each pigeon hole has its corresponding verb form. You can visualize this correspondence by imagining two of these identical pigeonhole patterns one on top of the other, one representing the subject pronouns and the other representing their corresponding verb forms. The bottom two boxes each contain three items: on the left, él, ella and usted; on the right, ellos, ellas and ustedes.

    Furthermore, from top to bottom of this pattern, the boxes are identified as first, second and third person. This allows us to define more precisely what each box represents, as if using latitude and longitude. It’s a bit like playing the popular game Battleship.

    The first person is defined as the person speaking. When singular, this person speaks for him or herself – I – found on the upper left. Immediately across from it, to the upper right, is the first-person plural, used when one person is speaking for a group – we. Note that in Spanish, if a woman is speaking for a group of women, she will use nosotras, not nosotros.

    yo = I nosotros/-as = we

    = you vosotros/-as = you

    él = he ellos = they (masculine or mixed group)

    ella = she ellas = they (feminine only)

    usted = you ustedes = you

    Although the pronoun it can be used as a subject in English, there is no corresponding use of any pronoun. When in English it would be the subject, in Spanish, it is understood; simply use the third-person verb form with no subject mentioned.

    Looking at the chart closely, you’ll notice that there are four ways to say you in Spanish. Let’s start with . is the form used between friends. Because it has a box all to itself, its corresponding verb form is unique to that box – and so the pronoun itself may be omitted because there can be no mistake as to who the subject is. Its corresponding plural, vosotros (or vosotras if the group is all female), is used only in Spain. Usted is the formal or polite form. In Latin America, because vosotros is not used, ustedes is the only way to say you in the plural. These two pronouns are often abbreviated in writing as Ud. and Uds. Also notice that yo and nosotros, like , have their own boxes.

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    Verbs

    Now let’s turn our attention to verbs. A verb is a word that tells what action the subject is or subjects are, doing. Verbs are listed in the dictionary in their infinitive or pre-conjugated form. The term infinitive suggests that the verb’s possibilities are infinite – that is, having not yet been conjugated, it has not had a person or number assigned to it. In addition to person and number, verbs have tenses as well. Tense shows whether the action takes place in the present, past or future. There are some tenses that fine-tune the way that the time of an action is viewed. However, in order to understand the concept of subject-verb agreement, we will only use one regular verb in the present tense: hablar, which means to speak.

    When a verb is conjugated, the infinitive ending, in this case –ar, is removed and a set of endings, each corresponding to one of the six boxes, is attached to the end. This correspondence is what subject-verb agreement is all about. Here is the verb hablar, conjugated in the present indicative tense. By clicking on each one, you can hear how to pronounce them:

    hablo

    hablamos

    hablas

    habláis

    habla

    hablan

    By superimposing the pronoun pigeonholes over these six forms, you can easily see what each of these six forms means. In the case of the third-person singular and third-person plural, you can see that each one could have three different subjects. For this reason, when habla or hablan are used, the subject pronouns are often used to avoid misunderstandings.

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    Quizzes for Lesson plan

    After you have taught the lesson on Spanish Subject- Verb agreement, you will want to check how well the class has understood the concepts. Use the following quizzes on the next page to assess student understanding.

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    Spanish subject-verb agreement, Quiz Set A, with key

    I. Conjugate the following regular –AR verbs so that they agree with the subjects indicated.

    1. tú/cantar

    2. ellos/trabajar

    3. usted/pagar

    4. nosotros/pegar

    5. ella/nadar

    6. yo/mirar

    7. ustedes/llevar

    8. tú/necesitar

    9. yo/dejar

    10. él/observar

    11. ellos/amar

    12. usted/odiar

    13. tú/combinar

    14. yo/hablar

    15. nosotros/enviar

    16. ella/ask

    17. tú/prepare

    18. yo/inform

    19. usted/drive

    20. nosotros/desire

    II. Match the following phrases with their English translations.

    1. Ella compra. a. You work.

    2. Trabajas. b. I cook.

    3. Cocino. c. We work.

    4. Ellos miran. d. She buys.

    5. Trabajamos. e. They watch.

    III. Translate the following short English sentences into Spanish. You do not need to include the subject pronoun in your answer – simply give the proper verb form.

    1. He works.

    2. You (Ud.) sing.

    3. I need.

    4. They swim.

    5. We carry.

    6. She looks.

    7. He carries.

    8. You (tú) forgive.

    9. They rent.

    10. We buy.

    11. You (Uds.) listen.

    12. He uses.

    13. We weigh.

    14. She exports.

    15. We import.

    16. I review.

    17. They ask.

    18. You (tú) postpone.

    19. We need.

    20. He desires.

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    Exercise Set A KEYSpanish Subject Verb Agreement

    I. Conjugate the following regular –AR verbs so that they agree with the subjects indicated.

    1. cantas

    2. trabajan

    3. paga

    4. pegamos

    5. nada

    6. miro

    7. llevan

    8. necesitas

    9. dejo

    10. observa

    11. aman

    12. odia

    13. combinas

    14. hablo

    15. enviamos

    16. pregunta

    17. preparas

    18. informo

    19. maneja

    20. deseamos

    II. Match the following phrases with their English translations.

    1. d.

    2. a.

    3. b.

    4. e.

    5. c.

    III. Translate the following English sentences into Spanish.

    1. Trabaja.

    2. Canta.

    3. Necesito.

    4. Nadan.

    5. Llevamos.

    6. Mira.

    7. Lleva.

    8. Perdonas.

    9. Alquilan.

    10. Compramos.

    11. Escuchan.

    12. Usa.

    13. Pesamos.

    14. Exporta.

    15. Importamos.

    16. Reviso.

    17. Preguntan.

    18. Postergas.

    19. Necesitamos.

    20. Desea.

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    Spanish Subject Verb Agreement Quiz Set B, with Key

    I. Conjugate the following regular –AR verbs so that they agree with the subjects indicated.

    1. ella/enviar

    2. yo/llegar

    3. vosotros/escuchar

    4. ellos/borrar

    5. Uds./odiar

    6. tú/amar

    7. él/utilizar

    8. Ud./desear

    9. yo/exporter

    10. ellas/llamar

    11. tú/revisar

    12. él/determinar

    13. usted/tachar

    14. ellos/sacar

    15. yo/dejar

    16. nosotros/echar

    17. ellas/hipotecar

    18. ustedes/redactar

    19. vosotros/bailar

    20. yo/llenar

    II. Match the following phrases with their English translations.

    1. Escuchan. a. We desire.

    2. Ama. b. I call.

    3. Deseamos. c. They listen.

    4. Llamo. d. You use.

    5. Utilizas e. She loves.

    III. Translate the following English sentences into Spanish using regular –AR verbs. You do not need to include the subject pronoun in your answer – simply give the proper verb form.

    1. He erases.

    2. We hate.

    3. You (tú) arrive.

    4. She sends.

    5. I desire.

    6. They edit.

    7. I need.

    8. We verify.

    9. You (tú) cook.

    10. He rents.

    11. They throw out.

    12. You (Uds.) manufacture.

    13. She scratches out [as in a word].

    14. They evaluate.

    15. I buy.

    16. They prepare.

    17. He wraps.

    18. We look.

    19. I listen.

    20. You (tú) love.

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    Exercise Set BSpanish Subject Verb Agreement

    I. Conjugate the following regular –AR verbs so that they agree with the subjects indicated.

    1. envia

    2. llego

    3. escucháis

    4. borran

    5. odian

    6. amas

    7. utiliza

    8. desea

    9. exporto

    10. llaman

    11. revisas

    12. determine

    13. tacha

    14. sacan

    15. dejo

    16. echamos

    17. hipotecan

    18. redactan

    19. bailáis

    20. lleno

    II. Match the following phrases with their English translations.

    1. c.

    2. e.

    3. a.

    4. b.

    5. d.

    III. Translate the following English sentences into Spanish, using regular –AR verbs. You do not need to include the subject pronoun in your answer – simply give the proper verb form.

    1. Borra.

    2. Odiamos.

    3. Llegas.

    4. Envia.

    5. Deseo.

    6. Redactan.

    7. Necesito.

    8. Verificamos.

    9. Cocinas.

    10. Alquila.

    11. Echan.

    12. Fabrican.

    13. Tacha.

    14. Evalúan.

    15. Compro.

    16. Preparan.

    17. Empaqueta.

    18. Miramos.

    19. Escucho.

    20. Amas.

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    Spanish Subject Verb Agreement Quiz Set C, with Key

    I. Conjugate the following regular –AR verbs so that they agree with the subjects indicated.

    1. tú/contratar 2. él/emplear 3. ellas/alquilar 4. yo/mandar 5. Ud./mejorar 6. ellos/aumentar 7. ella/bailar 8. yo/preguntar 9. nosotros/postergar 10. yo/quitar 11. ella y yo/bailar 12. yo/llorar 13. usted/llegar 14. nosotros/llenar 15. ellos/llevar 16. ustedes/llamar 17. tú y yo/mirar 18. vosotros/postergar 19. ellas/borrar 20. vosotros/determinar II. Match the following phrases with their English translations. 1. She increases. a. Postergo. 2. I postpone. b. Mejoran. 3. We rent. c. Empleas. 4. You (tú) employ. d. Aumenta. 5. They improve. e. Alquilamos. III. Translate the following English sentences into Spanish. You do not need to include the subject pronoun in your answer – simply give the proper verb form. 1. She orders. 2. They rent. 3. I ask. 4. We employ. 5. You (tú) hire. 6. She listens. 7. We carry. 8. They dance. 9. She and I sing. 10. They evaluate. 11. We work. 12. He verifies. 13. I rent. 14. We manufacture. 15. You (tú) confirm. 16. They postpone. 17. He reviews. 18. She hates. 19. I employ. 20. You (tú) cook.
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    Exercise Set C KEYSpanish Subject Verb Agreement

    I. Conjugate the following regular –AR verbs so that they agree with the subjects indicated.

    1. contratas

    2. emplea

    3. alquilan

    4. mando

    5. mejora

    6. aumentan

    7. baila

    8. pregunto

    9. postergamos

    10. quito

    11. bailamos

    12. lloro

    13. llega

    14. llenamos

    15. llevan

    16. llaman

    17. miramos

    18. postergáis

    19. borran

    20. determináis

    II. Match the following phrases with their English translations.

    1. d.

    2. a.

    3. e.

    4. c.

    5. b.

    III. Translate the following English sentences into Spanish. You do not need to include the subject pronoun in your answer – simply give the proper verb form.

    1. Manda.

    2. Alquilan.

    3. Pregunto.

    4. Empleamos.

    5. Contratas.

    6. Escucha.

    7. Llevamos.

    8. Bailan.

    9. Cantamos.

    10. Evalúane.

    11. Trabajamos.

    12. Verifica.

    13. Alquilo.

    14. Fabricamos.

    15. Confirmas.

    16. Postergan.

    17. Revisa.

    18. Odia.

    19. Empleo.

    20. Cocinas.