Using Three Grammatical Structures Agreeably in a Thesis or Dissertation
If you are not a native speaker of English, but are writing a thesis or dissertation in the language, you may find yourself struggling at times to establish agreement between the subjects of your clauses and sentences and the verbs that explain the actions, thoughts and qualities of those subjects. It is therefore likely that you may not be eager to read about anomalies and exceptions to the rules of agreement, but the fact is that there are exceptions to every rule governing English grammar, and it is best to understand them as well as possible and make good use of the forms of expression they offer. I discuss below three odd constructions that you may want to use in your thesis or dissertation.
According to the basic rules of agreement, using the conjunction ‘or’ or ‘nor’ to join nouns and pronouns results in a singular subject, as it does in ‘Mark or Mary visits the library each day,’ which uses ‘visits,’ the third-person singular form of ‘to visit’ that agrees with ‘Mark or Mary.’ The same is the case in ‘neither he nor she ever drives unless it is raining,’ which uses ‘drives,’ the third-person singular form of ‘to drive’ that matches ‘he nor she.’ However, when a combination of singular and plural nouns and pronouns are linked by ‘or’ or ‘nor’ to form the subject of a sentence, the usual practice is to use the form of the verb that matches the noun or pronoun that is closest to the verb. ‘The mediator or the employees open the discussion’ therefore requires the third-person plural ‘open’ of the verb ‘to open’ because it agrees with the plural ‘employees.’ On the other hand, ‘the employees or the mediator opens the discussion’ uses the third-person singular of the same verb to agree with the singular ‘mediator.’
In most constructions where two or more singular nouns or pronouns are linked via the conjunction ‘and,’ the subject of a sentence or clause becomes plural and requires a plural verb. However, if the second and any additional nouns or pronouns are connected to the first with a word or phrase such as ‘along with,’ ‘in addition to,’ ‘accompanied by’ or the like, those additional nouns do not affect the subject of the sentence. They do no more than modify the subject, so that first singular noun or pronoun still determines the form of the verb. This means that ‘Margaret, accompanied by her fellow students, attends a thesis-writing support group’ takes the third-person singular ‘attends’ to agree with ‘Margaret,’ not her ‘fellow students,’ whereas ‘the students, along with their instructor, attend the conference’ takes the third-person plural of ‘to attend’ that matches the ‘students.’
Choosing the right verb for a subject is sometimes complicated by other modifying phrases as well, so it is always essential to distinguish a subject from any modifying phrases that may appear between it and the verb. Nouns and pronouns in such modifying phrases can all too easily mislead the author who is hastening on with the report of his or her research, and this is especially true when an interjected phrase of this sort is long or complicated. A main verb must always agree with the main subject of a clause or sentence, however, so ‘the paper that the students presented to the department is very good’ therefore uses ‘is,’ the third-personal singular of ‘to be’ that agrees with the subject ‘paper,’ and the phrase ‘that the students presented to the department’ does not affect that form. Similarly, in ‘the results, which the thesis candidate obtained despite all the setbacks, have amazed the examiners,’ the verb ‘have,’ the third-person plural form of ‘to have,’ agrees with ‘results,’ not with ‘candidate’ or ‘setbacks.’ Since Microsoft Word sometimes highlights as incorrect the correct form of a verb after a complicated modifying phrase, it is essential not to follow its advice in all cases and keep a close eye on any automatic corrections it may make.
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