Turning Over New Leaf

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Fighting Chance - Part Three

Focus on Subject/Verb Agreement

There is little chance a college student would intentionally pen the sentence, "I are going to the store." College students are generally cognizant of the rules requiring singular subjects with singular verbs. Nevertheless, subject/verb agreement is one of the most frequently violated grammatical rules college instructors encounter when they read academic papers. Why? Because students are fooled by their own rhetoric. For example, consider the following sentence:

I, John Doe, formerly of 123 Main Street in Anytown, USA, along with my cousins, my sisters, my neighbors, my brothers, and various co-employees, are going to the store.

All the stuff between the subject I and the verb going sets up a confusing smoke screen, masking what the instructor sees immediately – I are going to the store.

Take another example:

The players are in danger of losing the championship.

This sentence is correct. However, when the student sets up the smoke screen, it is a recipe for grammatical disaster:

The players, along with their coach, is in danger of losing the championship.

When the student added the coach to the sentence, he or she failed to realize the verb still had to agree with the subject players. The key to correcting this common problem is to look for the basic sentence. Students paying special attention to the core ideas in their sentences greatly enhance their academic submissions.

Probably the single, most significant violation of the basic subject/verb agreement rule surrounds the word they. Students can enhance their written academic submissions exponentially by keeping one eye focused on this troublesome word. Here is a typical sentence finding its way into college papers to the chagrin of professors everywhere:

Whenever I see a child walking to school, they are always carrying a backpack.

Who are they? A child carries a backpack. Children carry backpacks. College students know this, but get sidetracked by the notorious word.

In short, to alleviate the subject/verb agreement problem, first look to the heart of each sentence to make sure the verbiage between commas does not shield the subject from the verb, and then be on the lookout for they. Ask the simple question, "Who are they?" The result often changes C grades to A grades.


  1. Good stuff, Teach.
    I think students would catch more than a few basic errors if they would take the time to proof read...

  2. JJ, one that drives me crazy is "Congress will excercise their will". How about, "The White House knows they are right on that issue"? Aaarrgghhhh!

  3. Number disagreement can be a major problem, especially when the main verb comes several lines after the subject of that verb. I once proofread a book in which there were several hundred such disagreements, all of which had to be corrected at the publisher's rather than the printer's expense, because the copy editor had failed to pick up the errors. However, I think you fail to address the following problem adequately:

    "Whenever I see a child walking to school, they are always carrying a backpack."

    The problem is that English doesn't have the appropriate singular pronoun. You can't write "it is always...", and writing "he is always..." or "she is always..." is misleading. I think that, clunky as it is, the quoted sentence is the best way out of the problem. This may be a difference between American and British English. The real problem with respect to the use of "they" is when referring to singular entities such as companies or countries.


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