Grammatical Agreement in the Scholarly Prose of a Thesis or Dissertation
Establishing agreement between the subject of an English clause or sentence and the verb that tells the reader what that subject is thinking, doing, feeling and so on is necessary when writing the kind of formal scholarly prose required in a thesis or dissertation. This agreement should observe both person (first, second or third) and number (singular or plural); when it does not, sentences do not make sense and an author’s meaning is obscured. The nature of the errors may be obvious to some readers, but such basic mistakes are unscholarly and unprofessional, so they should be avoided in the writing a student does for a thesis, dissertation or any other postgraduate assignment. The notes I have compiled here on subject–verb agreement may prove helpful for those who are new to writing in English or simply working to attain the highest scholarly standards and produce a successful thesis or dissertation.
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• A singular subject takes a singular verb. In ‘Mark writes his thesis,’ for example, ‘writes’ is the third-person singular form of ‘to write’ that agrees with the noun ‘Mark.’ ‘I am revising my chapter,’ on the other hand, uses ‘am,’ the first-person singular of ‘to be’ that agrees with the pronoun ‘I.’
• A plural subject takes a plural verb. ‘They visit the library together’ therefore uses ‘visit,’ the third-person plural of ‘to visit’ that agrees with the pronoun ‘they,’ and ‘We were conducting our research last week’ uses ‘were’ the first-person plural form of ‘to be’ that agrees with the pronoun ‘we.’
• Singular nouns or pronouns can be joined by the conjunction ‘and’ to form the subject of a clause or sentence, in which case the subject becomes plural and a plural verb is required. In ‘Mark and Mary visit the library together,’ for instance, ‘visit’ is again the third-person plural form of ‘to visit,’ here agreeing with the nouns ‘Dave and Mary.’ ‘He and she are reading the same book’ uses ‘are,’ the third-person plural form of ‘to be’ that agrees with the pronouns ‘he and she.’
• When singular nouns are joined via the conjunction ‘or’ or ‘nor’ to form the subject of a clause or sentence, alternatives are expressed, the subject remains singular and a singular verb is needed. ‘Either Mark or Mary visits the library each day’ is therefore correct with ‘visits,’ the third-person singular form of ‘to visit’ that agrees with ‘Dave or Mary.’ Similarly, ‘Neither he nor she ever drives unless it is raining’ uses ‘drives,’ the third-person singular form of ‘to drive’ that agrees with ‘he nor she.’
• Keep in mind that when a ‘there is’ or ‘there are’ structure is used, the subject is not ‘there.’ Instead, the subject follows the verb, but determines its number. ‘There is a pile of interviews still in need of transcription’ therefore uses ‘is,’ the third-person singular form of ‘to be’ that agrees with the subject ‘pile,’ whereas ‘are,’ the third-person plural form of that verb, is required in ‘There are fifty interviews still in need of transcription’ in order to agree with the plural subject ‘fifty interviews.’
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