First things first: What is subject / verb agreement?
It’s a grammatical rule that states that the verb must agree in number with its subject. In English, present tense verbs change to show agreement in the third person singular form by adding an S (or ES). Seems fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? So how could it be that students of all levels, nationalities and age groups seem to get this wrong far more often than would seem reasonable? It’s just another letter at the end of the verb, for heaven’s sake!
Today, 23 years after my very first lesson, hard as it still is to hear an intermediate student say “he don’t likes” without wincing internally, I think I am finally beginning to come to terms with students’ subject / verb agreement mistakes and learning to accept them as a natural part of their language development. This post is meant to help you take a slightly broader view of
subject / verb agreement mistakes rather than automatically dismiss them as “things students shouldn’t be saying at that level.”
The thing that strikes me most about subject / verb agreement mistakes is how ubiquitous they seem to be. To many teachers’ despair, a sentence like “My brother study English”, which we would expect – and welcome – from an A1 student, typically persists way beyond that, into A2, B1 and possibly B2+, depending on the learner and on the circumstances. Why does that happen? A number of studies have shown that students acquire L2 morphemes in a fairly predictable fashion, regardless of language background, age and – here’s the bombshell – what they learn in class. It so happens that the third person S is internalized relatively late – after ing, auxiliary be, articles and irregular past forms. No amount of awareness raising, drilling and correcting seems to significantly alter this sequence. So where do we stand on this? It is our job, after all, to help students speak more accurately, isn’t it? Bear with me for a few more lines.
1. There will be instances, of course, where your students will get subject / verb agreement right, too, although still inconsistently. Typically, most students up until B1ish will shift back and forth between accurate use and omission of the third person S, rather than produce a steady stream of either deviant or correct forms. What’s rarely discussed, unfortunately, is how accuracy also seems to depend on the verb at hand. Have you ever noticed, for example, how students seem to get certain verbs right more often than others? “He likes”, “She plays” and “Bob lives” are – at least in my experience – much more likely to be conjugated correctly than, say, “He sees”, “She goes” or “Lucy watches.”
True, this sort of backsliding is inherent to language acquisition – it’s evidence that students are mapping out their own internal grammars, as it were. In this particular case, though, I suspect students are also operating lexically / intuitively. Maybe – and I say maybe – certain verbs create a phonetic environment that makes them sound more “third person-friendly” than others. This means that if you want to assess the extent to which your students have truly internalized subject / verb agreement rules, you must test how consistently they’re getting the third person S right in spontaneous communication, across a range of verbs. Isolated instances probably won’t tell you much.
2. If what I said above makes any sense, then I believe we ought to help students gradually move from lexical, intuitive and often erratic use of the third person S towards a more conscious and systematic sort of mapping and deployment of the underlying systems. Here’s a rule of thumb: If your student makes a subject / verb agreement mistake, don’t automatically
assume that it’s simply a performance breakdown at the surface level – a slip, if you will. True, “He like soccer”, “She have a car” are probably performance slips beyond A1. But there might – and I say might – be more than meets the eye to (a) “My friends likes”, (b) “Everybody know” and (c) “She always play.” Let me talk about each case in turn.
When clarifying or eliciting subject / verb agreement rules, we tend to emphasize the use of the third person S after the pronouns he, she, it. Trouble is, subject-verb agreement usually causes more problems when the subject of the verb is a noun. Yet, for some reason, we tend to assume that during spontaneous communication, most students will
operate grammatically and automatically connect all the dots (Tom = he, Tom and Jerry = they) as they go along. What if they don’t? What if we actually need to spell things out, even at B1ish?
4. Also, if the noun ends with S (whether or not it’s a plural form), it might end up being even more troublesome partly because of the issues I addressed in item 1. For example, if I close my eyes now, I can hear far more students saying “My parents lives” rather than “They lives” and maybe more students saying “My boss knows” rather than “My supervisor knows.” My tentative hypothesis here is that maybe the first S somehow attracts a second one, which might make processing harder, even if the student knows the relevant morphology.
5. Quantifiers, indefinite pronouns and irregular plural forms are tricky, too, and mistakes in those areas are more likely to be misrepresentations of the rule than simply performance breakdowns. Chances are that in the past month or so you’ve had to remind students
that “everybody” needs a verb in the third person singular, while “people”, for example, doesn’t. I for one lost count of the number of times I’ve repeated that rule, often to little or no avail. In hindsight, though, I wish I hadn’t used the terms “third person singular” and “plural”, which might have confused students even more. After all, from their perspective, to all intents and purposes:
Singular = no S
Plural = add an S
Student: Everybody in my family like him.
Me: Third person singular, remember?
Maybe student will think: That’s what I said. Like! No S.
Or even worse:
Student: People likes him.
Me: Remember – people is plural.
Maybe student will think: That’s what I said – likeS.
So here’s my advice: Steer clear of “singular” and “plural:”
Student: People likes him.
You: People = they.
Student: Oh, ok. People like him.
6. When there’s an adverb between the subject and the verb, some students seem to think that the adverb somehow alters the rules: He never go. / My mom really like chocolate. Again, it’s hard to tell whether or not they’re operating intuitively (“He always goes sounds odd!”), so the most sensible thing to do might be to explain / remind them that the adverb makes no difference. In the same way, I don’t think we can automatically assume that subject / verb agreement rules will cross over into other structures naturally. For example, when presenting and practicing the so-called first conditional, it’s probably a good idea to remind students that we should say “If he goes…” rather than “if he go…”. Simply telling them to use the simple present in the if clause just won’t cut it. At least not in my experience.
7. For better and for worse, subject / verb agreement mistakes hardly ever impede communication. This means that if you’re a teacher who tends to prioritize mistakes that hinder comprehension, you’ll tend to overlook subject / verb agreement mistakes in speaking because, after all, the student was able to convey the message. I personally take the view, however, that we ought to provide more rather than less corrective feedback in this case, especially after A2.
The key, perhaps, is to understand what correction can and cannot do. Corrective feedback will rarely take care of subject / verb agreement mistakes that students aren’t developmentally ready to eliminate. It will, however:
a. Help to clarify a rule that perhaps was misunderstood or only partially learned. Remember: We can’t assume that most subject / verb agreement mistakes are merely performance slips.
b. Make students more sensitive to subject / verb agreement in the input that surrounds them. The more they notice and re-notice the third person S outside the classroom, the more likely they are to restructure their interlanguage.
c. Encourage students to monitor their speech, which might contribute to long-term overall
Thanks for reading.