Subject-Verb Agreement in the English Language: Basic Grammatical Concerns
One of the most primary of concerns when writing successful prose is maintaining agreement between the subject of a clause or sentence and the verb that tells the reader what the subject is doing, thinking, feeling and so on. Agreement should observe both person (first, second or third) and number (singular or plural). When agreement is lost, sentences do not make sense, and the information an author wishes to communicate becomes confused. Even if the nature of the errors is obvious to readers and the intended meaning relatively straightforward, such basic mistakes in grammar simply do not look good, and prose of so low a standard is never acceptable for academics and scientists who publish their writing as part of a scholarly career. Clarity, precision and professionalism are essential for reporting advanced research accurately, maintaining an authoritative voice and ensuring the best possible reception, whether the audience is an acquisitions editor, an examination committee or the larger scholarly community. The following grammatical principles will help when struggling to correct problems with subject-verb agreement.
• A singular subject takes a singular verb. In ‘Dave writes the paper,’ for example, ‘writes’ is the third-person singular form of ‘to write’ that agrees with the noun ‘Dave.’ ‘I am now 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 write their papers together’ therefore uses ‘write,’ the third-person plural of ‘to write’ that agrees with the pronoun ‘they,’ and ‘We were conducting our research last week’ uses ‘were’ the first-personal plural form of ‘to be’ that agrees with the pronoun ‘we.’
• When singular nouns or pronouns are joined by the conjunction ‘and’ to form the subject of a clause or sentence, the subject becomes plural and a plural verb is required. In ‘Dave and Mary write the paper,’ for instance, ‘write,’ the third-person plural form of ‘to write,’ is used to agree with the nouns ‘Dave and Mary.’ ‘Both he and she are writing the paper’ uses ‘are,’ the third-person plural form of ‘to be’ that agrees with ‘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 Dave or Mary walks to the park each day’ is therefore correct with ‘walks,’ the third-person singular form of ‘to walk’ 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.’
• 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 stack of papers still in need of marking’ therefore uses ‘is,’ the third-person singular form of ‘to be’ that agrees with the subject ‘stack,’ whereas ‘are,’ the third-person plural form of that verb, is required in ‘There are fifty papers still in need of marking’ to agree with the plural subject ‘fifty papers.’
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