Agreement with the right noun phrase

The first verb of a verb phrase functioning as predicate verb does not necessarily agree with the head of the closest noun phrase, but with the head of the noun phrase functioning as subject in the clause in which the verb phrase in question functions as predicate verb:

(1) I know that [my mother, who has four siblings,] loves me.

(2) We need to understand that [native speakers of English] get subject-verb agreement right more or less automatically. 

This rule sounds rather complicated, but it is not. The rule in itself is an example of what it might look like when we practice what we preach, in the sense that we make our sentences as clear, explicit, and unambiguous as possible. This means that anyone who knows the meaning of the words used in rule 11 also knows the exact meaning of it. 

As the examples above show, there can be noun phrases between the predicate verb and the head of the noun phrase functioning as subject. In the first sentence (1), the noun phrase subject contains the relative clause

(3) who has four siblings

The last constituent of the relative clause is the noun phrase four siblings. This noun phrase is obviously plural, but since the verb agrees with the head of the noun phrase functioning as subject, it does not agree with the plural siblings, but instead with the singular mother.

The second example (2) illustrates the same fact. The only difference is that the head of the subject noun phrase is now plural (people), while the head of the NP closest to the predicate verb, i.e. the complement in the prepositional phrase functioning as postmodifier to the head people, is singular (English).

Moreover, it is important to understand that one and the same sentence may consist of more than one clause. If there is more than one clause in a sentence, there will be more than one predicate verb. Each predicate verb must agree with the subject of the clause to which it belongs, if there is a subject in the clause.

Please note that a non-finite clause need not contain a subject. If we have a look at our first example sentence above, we may conclude that it consists of three clauses, since it contains three predicate verbs, namely know, has, and loves.

These three verbs happen to be finite, so the clauses in which these verb phrases function as predicate verbs must also be finite. This means that there must also be subjects with which the predicate verbs must agree. The predicate verb know agrees with the subject I, the predicate verb has agrees with the subject who (which is coreferential with my mother, and thus third person singular) and the predicate verb loves agrees with the subject my mother, who has four siblings, which is third person singular. 

If we want to understand all this, we need to know about clause elements, clauses, and phrases (and their internal structure). If you feel like reading up on this, please follow the links below.

Definition: Coreferential (click to expand/contract)

Definition of 'coreferential'

If X is coreferential with Y, X refers to the same person, animal, thing, abstraction, or idea as Y.


For further reading: Finite & non-finite (click to expand/contract)

Clauses, phrases, and verbs are either finite or non-finite.

A clause is finite if the verb phrase functioning as the predicate verb of the clause is finite.

A verb phrase is finite if it contains a finite verb form. The two finite verb forms in English are the present tense verb form (e.g. has, is, writes, knows) and the past tense verb form (e.g. had, was, wrote, knew).

So, if a verb phrase contains a present tense verb form or a past tense verb form, the verb phrase is finite. This means that has played, is running, wrote, and knew are examples of finite verb phrases.

Similarly, a clause is finite if its predicate verb is such a finite verb phrase.The following clauses within square brackets are finite, since their boldfaced predicate verbs are finite verb phrases:

 

(i) I know [where you were yesterday].

(ii) [She is my best friend].

(iii) [When I was living in England], I was very happy most of the time.

 

Example (ii) is a main clause. Main clauses are always finite. To be able to stand on its own, a clause has to be finite (but not all finite clauses can stand on their own).

Example (iii) illustrates that a verb phrase that consists of a combination of a finite and a non-finite verb is always finite.

Two further facts need to be stated and a conclusion has to be drawn: 

  • There can be only one finite verb in a finite verb phrase (but up to four non-finite verbs).
  • The finite verb in a finite verb phrase is always the first verb.
  • This means that the main verb is only finite when it is the only verb in a finite verb phrase, as in examples (i) and (ii).

The non-finite verb forms are the infinitive (e.g. to have, to be, to write, to know, preceded or not preceded by the infinitive marker to), the present participle (e.g. having, being, writing, knowing, i.e. the so-called ing-form), and the past participle (e.g. written, gone, bought).

If a verb phrase only contains non-finite verb forms, it is non-finite, and so is the clause in which such a verb phrase functions as the predicate verb. Examples (iv) and (v) contain a non-finite clause each (within square brackets):

 

(iv) [Living in England], he went mad.

(v) [Having spent three hours in an endless queue], Pat went home.

 

Since these clauses are non-finite, we can draw the conclusion that went must be finite in both sentences, since otherwise the sentences would not have been able to stand on their own as complete sentences (which they obviously can).