Agreement of Subject and Verb
The subject and verb of any clause must agree in both person and number. Checking sentences for agreement requires a close look at everything you write. The following guidelines should help.
A verb must agree with its subject in number (singular or plural).
The members were proud of their sales record. (Both the subject members and the verb were are plural; they agree in number.)
Our director, along with most of the associate directors, finds the new procedure awkward at best. (Director, not associate directors, is the subject.)
Agreement with Delayed Subjects
Delayed subjects result when the verb precedes the subject (an inverted sentence). In such sentences, the true (delayed) subject must agree with the verb.
There are many interesting stops along the way. There is no smoking on the bus. (Stops and smoking are the subjects of these sentences, not there.)
Agreement with Compound Subjects
Compound subjects connected with and almost always take a plural verb.
Hard work and attention to detail are her greatest strengths.
Agreement When Subjects Include or/nor
Singular subjects joined by or or nor require a singular verb.
Either Spencer or Laura is expected to attend the meeting.
Neither his complaints nor his attitude was the reason I changed my mind. (The singular subject attitude is closer to the verb; therefore, the singular verb was is used to agree with attitude.)
Verb Agreement with Indefinite Pronouns
The indefinite pronouns each, either, neither, one, everybody, another, anybody, anyone, anything, everyone, everything, nobody, somebody, and someone are singular; they require a singular verb.
Everybody is required to leave early today.
Each of the attendants is [not are] required to bring a notepad and pens to the briefing.
The indefinite pronouns both, few, several, and many are plural; they require a plural verb.
Many are calling in sick and several have been hospitalized.
Indefinite Pronouns That Take Number from Objects
The indefinite pronouns all, any, most, none, and some may be either singular or plural. These pronouns are singular if the object of the preposition in the phrase that follows the pronoun is singular; they are plural if the object is plural.
Most of the manuals were missing. (Manuals, the object of the preposition, is plural; therefore, the pronoun most is considered plural and takes a plural verb, were.)
Much of the meeting was over by the time we arrived. (Because meeting is singular, much is also singular and requires the singular verb was.)
All of the members are expected to attend.(The object members is plural, so the verb are is also plural.)
Agreement with Collective Nouns
Collective nouns (class, faculty, family, committee, team, species, band, crowd, pair, squad) can be singular or plural in meaning. They require a singular verb when they refer to a group as a unit; they require a plural verb when they refer to the group members as individuals.
The team is [not are] required to submit an expense report for the road trip. (Team refers to a group as a unit; it requires the singular verb is.)
The faculty are [not is] highly experienced. (In this example, faculty refers to the individuals within the group. If the word individuals were substituted for faculty, it would become clear that the plural verb are is needed.)
Agreement with Nouns That Are Plural in Form
Some nouns that are plural in form but singular in meaning require a singular verb: economics, news, mathematics, summons, mumps, and so on.
Economics is a social science, not a pure science.
Last year’s earnings were up from 2018!
The proceeds cover the cost of the banquet.
Agreement with Relative Pronouns
When a relative pronoun (which, who, that) is used to introduce a dependent clause, the number of the verb must agree with the pronoun’s antecedent. (See agreement for subject and verb and pronoun and antecedent)
This is one of the reports that are required for this project. (The relative pronoun that takes the plural verb are because the pronoun’s antecedent reports is plural. To test this type of sentence, read the of phrase first: Of the reports that are . . .)
Agreement with “Be” Verbs
If a form of the be verb is used and a predicate noun follows it, the verb must agree with the subject, even if the predicate noun is different in number.
The cause of his health problem was his bad eating habits.
His bad eating habits were the cause of his health problem.
Agreement of Pronoun and Antecedent
A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in number, person, and gender. (The antecedent is the word or words to which the pronoun refers.)
Susan paid cash for her lunch.
Singular Pronoun Antecedents
Use a singular pronoun to refer to antecedents such as either, neither each, one, anyone, everyone, everybody, somebody, nobody, another, none, and a person.
One of the reports is missing its [not their] cover.
However, when a singular indefinite pronoun refers to a person of any gender, rewriting the sentence using plural forms avoids sexism and wordy constructions.
Original Sentence: Every employee must turn in his or her time card.
Plural Replacement: All employees must turn in their time cards.
Formerly, grammar books suggested referring to singular indefinite pronouns of indeterminate gender using his or her alternating with her or his. This solution, though, is clunky and can be taken as sexist and gender-binary. The Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press, and other major style guides now allow third-person plural pronouns (they, them, their) to refer to singular indefinite pronouns when gender is indeterminate.
Dealing with Pronoun Gender
Singular and Plural Antecedents
If one of the antecedents joined by or or nor is singular and one is plural, the pronoun should agree with the closer antecedent.
Neither the employer nor his employees were [not was] ready for their [not his] trip.
Two or More Antecedents
Two or more antecedents joined by and are considered plural; two or more singular antecedents joined by or or nor take a singular pronoun.
Jane and Florence opened their laptop cases.
Either Fred or Stan forgot his laptop today.
Masculine and Feminine Antecedents
If one of the antecedents is masculine and one is feminine, the pronouns should also be masculine and feminine.
Ask either Sandra or Rob to return her or his extra laptop battery.
Collective Noun Antecedents
Use a singular pronoun in place of a collective noun that refers to a group as a unit. Use a plural pronoun when the collective noun refers to the individuals in the group.
The committee reported that it will present its agenda to the board of directors at noon. (group as a unit)
The committee must sign their names to the document before they leave. (group as individuals)
Shifts in Sentence Construction
A shift is an improper change in structure midway through a sentence. The following examples will help you identify and avoid several different kinds of shifts in your writing.
Shift in Number
Shift in number is using both a singular and plural pronoun to refer to the same person or group.
When people get special training, he or she should share what they have learned with their coworkers. (The sentence shifts from the plural antecedent people to the singular pronouns he or she to the plural pronoun they.)
When people get special training, they should share what they have learned with their coworkers. (The sentence now contains the plural antecedent people and the plural pronoun they.)
Shift in Person
Shift in person is improperly mixing first, second, or third person within a sentence.
Customers can pay for the items when ordering or when you receive them. (The sentence shifts from third person, customers, to second person, you.)
You can pay for the items when ordering or when you receive them. (Both subjects remain in second person.)
Customers can pay when ordering or when they receive the items. (Customers, a third person plural noun, requires a third person plural pronoun, they.)
Shift in Tense
Shift in tense is using more than one tense in a sentence when only one tense is needed.
We go to the meeting and sat for two hours. (Go is present tense, but sat is past tense.)
We went to the meeting and sat for two hours. (Went and sat are both past tense.)
Shift in Voice
Shift in voice is mixing active with passive voice.
As we searched the warehouse for damage, a broken window was discovered. (Searched is in the active voice, while was discovered is in the passive voice.)
As we searched the warehouse for damage, we discovered a broken window. (Both verbs are in the active voice.)
Unparallel construction occurs when the kind of words or phrases being used shifts or changes in the middle of a sentence.
All products must be tested, receive approval, and we add labeling before shipment. (The sentence shifts verb forms from must be tested to receive approval to we add labeling.)
All products must be tested, approved, and labeled before shipment. (All three verbs end with ed—they are consistent or parallel.)
In the second example, notice how each item in the series correctly “reads in” to what came before: All products must be tested; All products must be approved; All products must be labeled. In each case, the past tense verb works with the helping verbs must be. Sentence parts that fulfill the same function should have the same form. That’s parallel structure.
What Is Parallel Structure?
Ambiguous wording occurs when the words used in a piece of writing are unclear to the reader because they can have two or more possible meanings. Learn to recognize and avoid ambiguous wording by studying the examples that follow.
Misplaced modifiers are words or phrases that are so separated from what they are describing that the reader may be confused.
The printer has nearly been running three hours straight. (Does the writer really mean the printer has nearly been running?)
The printer has been running nearly three hours straight. (This sentence says the printer has been running for nearly three hours.)
Dangling modifiers are descriptive words or phrases that appear to modify the wrong noun, often because the right noun doesn't even appear in the sentence. Dangling modifiers often occur as phrases or clauses containing ing words.
After analyzing all the data, the report went to our supervisor. (This sentence mistakenly claims that report was analyzing all the data.)
After analyzing all the data, we sent the report to our supervisor. (This sentence clarifies who was analyzing all the data.)
Fixing Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers
Indefinite Pronoun Reference
An indefinite reference is a problem caused by careless use of pronouns. There must always be a word or phrase nearby that a pronoun clearly replaces.
When the forklift operator placed the pallet on the scale, it broke. (The pronoun it could refer to the scale or the pallet.)
The pallet broke when the forklift operator placed it on the scale. (Now it is clear which item broke.)
Incomplete comparisons—leaving out words that show exactly what is being compared to what—can confuse readers.
The office manager said the U150 is faster. (The U150 is faster than what?)
The office manager said the U150 is faster than the R33. (Than the R33 completes the comparison.)
One type of ambiguous writing is wording that has two or more possible meanings due to an unclear reference to something.
Daniel wanted to complete his report after reading the latest research, but he didn’t. (It is unclear what Daniel didn’t do—complete his report or read the latest research.)
Daniel wanted to read the latest research before completing his report, but he didn’t have time to do the reading. (This sentence makes it clear that Daniel completed his report but not his reading.)
Nonstandard language does not conform to the standards set by schools, businesses, media, and public institutions. It is often acceptable in everyday conversation and in fictional writing, but seldom in formal speech or in formal writing.
Colloquial language is wording used in informal conversation that is unacceptable in formal writing.
How’s it goin’? (Colloquial)
How are you today? (Standard)
Avoid the use of slang in formal writing.
During the staff meeting, I really got peeved. (Slang)
During the staff meeting, I really got angry. (Standard)
The use of certain double prepositions—off of, off to, from off—is unacceptable.
Place the file up on the shelf. (Double preposition)
Place the file on the shelf. (Standard)
Avoid substituting and for to.
Try and save all the data related to the Swanson project. (Substitution)
Try to save all the data related to the Swanson project. (Standard)
A double negative is an expression that contains two negative words used to convey a single negative idea. Double negatives are unacceptable in all writing.
After examining the labels, I don’t think none of them are good. (A double negative is created by using don’t and none together.)
After examining the labels, I don’t think any of them are good. (Standard)
She didn’t barely have time to finish her presentation. (A double negative is created by using didn’t and barely together.)
She barely had time to finish her presentation. (Standard)
A sentence fragment is a group of words that lacks a subject, a predicate, or both.
Raised the expectation of investors. (lacks a subject)
All the reports since last year. (lacks a predicate)
Quite an encouragement. (lacks a subject and predicate)
The first-quarter earnings raised the expectations of investors.
All the reports since last year indicate higher profits.
The sales figures are quite an encouragement.