These days, since the elimination of the SAT Essay section, SAT Writing is less about being a good writer yourself, and more about catching the (sometimes) bad writers that College Board throws at you instead. Rather than demonstrating your stellar composition and grammar, you’ll have to evaluate someone else’s for grammatical correctness, tone, flow, etc.

An important thing to check for on SAT Writing questions is subject-verb agreement. For the sentence to be correct, they must agree!

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To really understand what you’re in for with subject and verb agreement on the SAT, we’re starting at the beginning. Back to the basics!

The base of good writing is sentence structure, and the foundation of a sentence is its subject and verb. To really be a pro at sentence writing, the subject and verb of your sentence must agree. Don’t worry if that phrasing doesn’t make sense yet, we’ll get there. Let’s start with an example sentence to get us through these explanations:

The dog chased the cat down the street.

Boom. There’s our sentence, let’s dissect it.

What is a Subject of a Sentence?

This one is pretty self-explanatory. What is the sentence about? In our case, the sentence is about the dog, which makes him the subject AND a good boy.

The subject of the sentence is usually a noun (a person, place, or thing) that is doing the main action of the sentence. We know the dog is the subject because he is doing the chasing. The cat is also mentioned, but her action is not the main point of the sentence. This can be tricky, so make sure you look at the sentence as a whole to determine the subject rather than just picking your favorite noun to be the subject.

The cat would be the subject of the sentence if it were structured like this instead:

The cat was chased down the street by the dog.

The subject of the sentence is what the sentence is mainly about, simple enough. The verbs are where it gets a bit trickier, so let’s get into it.

Each correct sentence must have a subject, a verb, and agreement between the two.

Verbs in a Sentence

A verb is used to describe an action, state, or occurrence, and they are essential to sentence structure. Without verbs, the sentence is pointless and incomplete. There are two types of verbs, action verbs, and linking verbs. Once again, the explanations for these verbs are mostly self-explanatory.

Action verbs describe something that the subject of the sentence is doing. In our sentence, we’re using an action verb to describe what the dog is doing, in this case chasing the cat. More examples of action verbs: run, climb, dance, kick, sit, study, and read.

Linking verbs, sometimes called “helping verbs” are also essential to the sentence, but they help us describe the subject itself rather than what the subject is doing. If we go back to our original sentence using a linking verb rather than an action verb, it could look like this:

The dog was fast when he chased the cat down the street.

Don’t let it trick you! Yes, “chased” is an action verb, but the linking verb “was” is directly describing our subject, the dog. When the SAT asks you what the subject and the verb of a sentence are, make sure you’re looking at the sentence as a whole, and its meaning, rather than just the different parts of speech that make it up.

How Do I Make Sure the Subject and the Verb Agree?

To be a good writer, and score highly on your SAT, the subject and the verb in your sentences must agree. This doesn’t mean they have to have to vote for the same political candidate or decide on the same restaurant for dinner, rather their form and tenses must work together to give the sentence a clear meaning in time and space. Let’s go over an example of a poor agreement to kick this section off:

The dogs chases the cat down the street.

Now our subject is plural because we’ve added some extra dogs into the scenario. No one has ever been upset about adding more dogs to something. You can see here that the subject and verb don’t work together. Dogs is plural, while our action verb, “chases”, implies a singular subject. If the subject is singular, so must be the verbs in the sentence. If the subject is plural, so must be the verbs. We’ve got some tense issues in this sentence as well, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

How Will Subjects and Verbs Look on the SAT?

Trying some practice questions in a study group can help make sure you’re a pro at subject and verb agreement!

You’re probably thinking, this is super easy, how could anyone who speaks English as their first language mess this up? You might even be tempted to skip practicing this topic altogether, but trust me when I say College Board does their best to throw you off when it comes to subject-verb agreement.

The most common way they’ll try to trick you is through complex sentences with lots of detail between and around the subject and the verb. This is to mask the important info you’re looking for in flowery language so you second guess the point of the sentence. Typical College board, making something simple seem complicated. Let’s go back to our example sentence, but make it *fancy* so you can see what I mean:

The shaggy, large dog, an excellent hunter, chased the tiny, feral cat down the street and into an abandoned building.

Notice how the detail and descriptive words complicate the sentence, but the subject, the dog, does not change. Try to derive what the sentence is trying to say without getting caught up in the detail. I’m talking bare bones, “the dog chased”. Cut away at the extra information to get to the root of the sentence and its meaning.

To further complicate things, compound subjects are also a thing, meaning there could be more than one subject mentioned in a sentence. They are most frequently combined with ‘and’, ‘or’ or ‘nor’. Let’s circle back to our dog friend and his chase for an example:

The dog and his owner chased the cat down the street.

In this case, the dog AND his owner are doing the chasing, so they are both the subject of the sentence. This is where the verb can get trickier too. The tense and form (singular or plural) of the verb must agree with both subjects. Since we have two subjects, the verb must be plural, and since our sentence is past tense, “chased” still works as our action verb, but if it were present tense we’d have to do some adjusting:

The dog and his owner chases the cat down the street? No.

The dog and his owner chase the cat down the street. Yes.

“Chase” is present tense and it agrees with the plural subjects, the dog and his owner.

The Key to Understanding Subject and Verb Agreement

The easiest way to see if your subject and verb agree is to reduce the details in the sentence to uncloud the core meaning of the sentence. What is the sentence trying to communicate? Does it make sense when you read it aloud? If it doesn’t make sense or sounds a bit off, there’s a good chance your subject doesn’t agree with its verb, whether it’s a linking verb or an action verb.

Remember: the tense and form (singular or plural) of your verb MUST match your subject for them to agree, and agreement is necessary for good writing (and a good SAT score). Now you’re ready to show College Board that their tricks aren’t good enough for you, a subject and verb agreement pro!

Kirsten Mann
Kirsten is the Operations Coordinator at Test Geek. She has a 35 on the ACT Reading Test and enjoys sarcasm and pop culture references.

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