Subject / Verb Agreement for ESL Writers

Subject/verb agreement in English language writing obviously means that the subject actually does what the sentence states. For example:

A car’s engine runs when it’s turned on, but a car does not run down the street. It goes down the street.

I write my name, but I don’t write a pencil. I write my name with a pencil.

But after we learn the nuances of vocabulary we still have to be sure that we conjugate verbs correctly. Here are some simple guidelines that can help:

Future tense is always the same:

I will + base verb We will + base verb
You will + base verb You will + base verb
He/She/It will + base verb They will + base verb


I will visit New York again this year.

We will get a pizza (on the way home).

She will have the pasta alfredo (ordering from the menu).

I will buy dinner (for everyone).

Simple past tense adds an -ed to regular verbs. This is consistent across all cases.

I visited We visited
You visited You visited
He/She/It visited They visited

Even with irregular verbs, the simple past of a verb is the same for all cases.

I got We got
You got You got
He/She/It got They got
I had We had
You had You had
He/She/It had They had
I bought We bought
You bought You bought
He/She/It bought They bought

Simple present conjugates the same way for all cases but one:

I visit We visit
You visit You visit
He/She/It visits They visit
I get We get
You get You get
He/She/It gets They get
I have We have
You have You have
He/She/It has They have
I buy We buy
You buy You buy
He/She/It buys They buy

Notice the only change is 3rd person singular (he/she/it).  For simple present tense, most of the time we add –s.  (Note: to have is slightly irregular.)  Add –es for verbs that end with –s, –ch, –sh, –x, or –y as well as the two common verbs go and do.

Examples for adding –es in 3rd person singular (simple present):

kiss kisses
watch watches
push pushes
wax waxes
study studies
go goes
do does

(Note:  Words with a consonant + y change to an i, as in study à studies. Words with a vowel + y retain the y, as in play à plays.)

So there are only a few rules to remember for future, simple past, and simple present.

  1. Future: Use will + the base verb.
  2. Simple Past: Memorize the irregular verbs.
  3. Simple Present: Only he/she/it changes. All other cases remain in the base form.

Easy, right?

Now, if you memorize to be (I am, you are, etc.) along with to have (see above), you can also master subject/verb agreement for continuous and perfect tenses. But that’s a subject for another post.

One more note on singular and plural: The conjunction and creates a plural subject; or keeps the subject separate. Subject/verb agreement for or depends on which subject appears last.


  • Jack and Jill go up the hill.  (and = plural, so use are)
  • Either Jack or Jill has the pail for water.  (or = Jill, singular, so use has)
  • Either Jill or her parents need more water.  (or = parents, plural, so use need)
  • Either Jack’s parents, Jill’s parents, or Robert has the lunch basket. (or = Robert, singular so use has)

And that’s a quick summary of subject/verb agreement for ESL writers. Enjoy your simplified English!

Liam HickeyLiam Hickey currently teaches ESL with Corporate English in Guadalajara, Mexico.  Via Willpower Careers, Liam also works as a career coach, teaching people how to write effective résumés, research companies, interview and negotiate salary, network, and more.  His clients also benefit from his ten years of technical writing and consulting experience.

He can be reached at or


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