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GMAT Subject-Verb Agreement Rule

Subject-verb agreement is one of the most important and most commonly-tested points of grammar on GMAT sentence correction questions. In fact, it should be among the first things you look for when evaluating the underlined portion of a sentence on the GMAT, and the “bracketing technique” we teach is incredibly useful in identifying subject-verb agreement errors.

Of course, it’s easy to spot an error when a sentence says something like “The team always play well after a week of practice” because we quickly identify “the team” as a singular subject, and therefore it requires the singular verb plays to make the sentence correct.

But what about some of the more difficult subject-verb constructions?

One such construction that the GMAT often tests regarding singular and plural subjects is the difference between “A number…” and “The number….”

Here are the rules you need to know:

  1. “A number” is always plural.
  2. “The number” is always singular.

For example, we would say: “A number of the players ARE still injured from the last game.”

Conversely, we would say: “The number of players accused of taking steroids IS increasing weekly.”

Remember these rules because they will serve you well on the GMAT. Also pay attention to the exact wording — and consequent meaning — of the answer choices as you make your evaluations and eliminate wrong answers. Consider this example:

Q: Part of the proposed increase in state health care spending is due to higher emergency room admissions, since the number of people without health insurance have grown steadily since the mid-1990’s and, at nearly 44 million, are at a record high.

(A) admissions, since the number of people without health insurance have grown steadily since the mid-1990’s and, at nearly 44 million, are at
(B) …
(C) admissions, with a number of people without health insurance growing steadily since the mid-1990’s and, at nearly 44 million, reaching
(D) admissions: the number of people without health insurance has grown steadily since the mid-1990’s and, at nearly 44 million, has reached
(E) …

Remember that “the number” is always singular, so the plural “have” in the original sentence is incorrect. The correct answer is D because it pairs the singular verb “has” with the singular subject “the number.”

Now, I’ve just told you that answer choice C is incorrect… but why? (Hint: What is actually growing? The people themselves (e.g. taller? wider?)? Or is it the number of people that’s growing?)