The following guidelines are easier for some to follow than for others, but they can, with a little work, be learned by almost anyone. Once learned, they'll become part of your permanent knowledge base like the multiplication tables or your best friend's phone number. You won't have to learn them twice.

Take time then, even it you're fairly confident about your grammar, to see if you need to work on any of these six areas. If you do, try to understand the logic of the rule, what its purpose is.

... see if you need to work on any of these six areas.

Study the examples until you see how the rule is violated and how it can be set right. Work the activities until you've mastered the rule. Notice which areas are most problematic for you personally. Finally, make the carryover into your own writing. When you do that, you can consider the rule learned.

 


Subject/Verb Agreement

This rule comes first because understanding it can help you understand some of the others. In most sentences you follow it

naturally, but it can cause trouble. The rule is as follows: The subject and verb of each clause must agree in number.

The subject and verb of each clause must agree in number.

If you have a singular subject, you need a singular verb. If you have a plural subject, you need a plural verb. Singular and plural tell how many. Singular means one. Plural means more than one. Both your subject and verb must give the same signal as to how many you are talking about.

Read the following sentences and see if you can find any problems with subject/verb agreement.

1. The cat come home tired.

2. The cat comes home tired.

3. The cats come home tired.

4. The cats comes home tired.

Can you explain the problem in sentences one and four? If not, consider that with most nouns, our language forms the plural by adding an s, but with verbs, an s is added only in the third person singular.

Person/Number Chart

  Singular Plural
1st person

I come

we come

2nd person

you come

you come

3rd person*

he, she, it, this, or that comes

the cat* comes

they, these, or those come

the cats* come

*All nouns—words such as table, cat or frog—should be considered 3rd person.

Mastering Subject/Verb Agreement

1. Force yourself to listen for s sounds as you write. In speaking, we sometimes drop these sounds as we fade one word into another. Because of this, we may forget the sounds are even there. Thus, we fail to make our subjects and verbs agree. Listening for those s sounds is the real key to getting rid of most agreement problems.

2. Don't be misled by false subjects. Be sure the word you make your verb agree with is actually the subject of the clause, not just another noun.

Change:

Those tomatoes from my brother looks juicy.

to:

Those tomatoes from my brother look juicy.

The first sentence gives mixed signals because the verb has been made to agree with the false subject "brother" rather than the true subject, "tomatoes." Here's another example of the false subject.

Change: Forgetting your tickets cause problems.

to:

Forgetting your tickets causes problems.

At first glance "tickets" may look like the subject, but a moment's reflection tells us that "forgetting your tickets" causes problems, not the tickets themselves. Whenever such a verb phrase serves as the subject, consider it singular.

3. Treat collectives as singulars. Collective nouns identify a group: a team, a platoon, a class, a congregation, a family. Treat broadly inclusive nouns such as "nobody," "everybody," "anyone," "each," and "everyone" as singular also.

Change: My family like to go to church together.

to:

My family likes to go to church together.

Even if the family has eight or nine people, it is still only one thing; therefore, it is considered singular.

4. Watch out for compound subjects. When the parts of a compound subject are joined by "and," treat the subject as plural, even if the individual parts are singular.

Change: Danny and Rolando gets their share of rebounds.

to:

Danny and Rolando get their share of rebounds.

When the parts are joined by "or" or "nor," let the part nearest the verb determines the verb's number.

Change: Either the head table or the chairs needs realigning.

to:

Either the head table or the chairs need realigning.
   
Change: Neither the chairs nor the head table need realigning.

to:

Neither the chairs nor the head table needs realigning.

Activities

4.11 Edit the following sentences for subject/verb agreement.

a. The gloves I got for Christmas is too small.

b. My knee look like it is starting to heal.

c. Breakfast and lunch always tastes great.

d. Opening the cans spoil the meat.

e. Our team don't get discouraged when we lose.

f. The bus always get me here on time.

g. The corner and the edge shows the rust first.

h. These bandages works great.

i. Neither the judge nor the jury are responsible for this.

j. Our staff and equipment is ready to serve you.

4.12 Read the following sentences and tell whether the subject and verb agree in number. Be prepared to explain and justify your answer.

a. A big tree with all the trimmings make the holidays special.

b. Anyone wearing muddy boots are to stand over there.

c. The houses by the river are the oldest.

d. The old man in the corner booth looks tired.

e. Our selection of tomatoes top them all.

f. At the foot of the dunes a small boy plays by the shore.

g. Flags of many nations flutters in the chilly breeze.

h. The shocks in my Mustang is shot.

i. The tie with the orange stripes looks bold.

j. Too many onions spoils the stew.


Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement

Just as subjects and verbs must agree, pronouns must agree with their antecedents.

Just as subjects and verbs must agree, pronouns must agree with their antecedents. A pronoun is a word that substitutes for a previously mentioned noun. If that noun (called the antecedent) is plural, the pronoun standing-in for it must also be plural. If the antecedent is singular, so must the pronoun be.

Change: My club is having a bake sale. These should help our finances.

to:

My club is having a bake sale. This should help our finances.

In the first example, "these" refers back to the antecedent "bake sale," but because "these" is plural and its antecedent is singular, an agreement problem results. Making both pronoun and antecedent singular solves the problem.

The person/number chart below will help you determine whether a pronoun is singular or plural.

Person/Number Chart

  Singular Plural
1st person I, me we, us
2nd person you you
3rd person* he; him; she; her; it; this; that; or any noun representing ONE person, place, or thing, as: a table. they; them; these; those; or any noun representing MORE THAN ONE person, place, or thing, as: some tables.

*All nouns—words such as table, cat or frog—should be considered 3rd person.

Activity

4.13 Edit the following sentences for pronoun/antecedent agreement.

a. If the people want unsafe cars, they will get it.

b. When a person needs advice, they can go to a psychologist.

(HINT: Make the antecedent plural to avoid gender problems.)

c. After the streets had been swept, it looked very clean.

d. I don't like tacos. It's too spicy.

e. The director organizes the play. They make sure everyone knows what to do.

f. Some students pick this up quickly. This person can go on to the next section.

g. Good friends, food, and a roof over your head-this is the only necessities.

h. Playing a musical instrument is a valuable experience for a child. They teach them many important things.


Pronoun Reference

Faulty pronoun reference means the antecedent of your pronoun is not totally and immediately clear. There is no single rule for making pronoun reference clear in all cases. Most often a reader will try to connect the pronoun with the subject of a previous clause or sentence:

Your reader should connect your pronoun with its antecedent at once.

When Andre cut his finger, he screamed out in pain.

But not always, sometimes the reader will connect it with the closest noun:

When Andre cut his finger, it started to bleed.

In both cases the meaning is clear, and so there is no problem. Problems occur, though, when two words compete as antecedents and the meaning blurs:

Finally, he wrapped his finger in a bandage, and it stopped bleeding.

Or when the antecedent is not named explicitly:

The danger of creosote build-up has not been properly publicized by the makers of wood burning stoves. This should be looked into thoroughly.

Or when a pronoun seems to refer back to a single word but is intended to refer to a whole clause:

My brother caught my cold which made me feel bad.

Because "which" seems to refer to both "cold" and the entire base clause, the meaning is slightly out of focus. Careful writers keep the meaning focused by making pronoun/antecedent relationships totally and immediately clear. It isn't enough to say readers who want to understand your meaning will if they work hard enough. Your reader should connect your pronoun with its antecedent at once.

To make the reference clear you could change the wording slightly:

The danger of creosote build-up has not been properly publicized by the makers of wood burning stoves. This lack of publicity should be looked into thoroughly.

You may want to re-word the entire sentence and eliminate the pronoun:

I felt bad that my brother caught my cold.

First, notice the problem, and having seen it, eliminate any ambiguity.

Activity

4.14 Edit the following sentences for clear pronoun reference.

a. This car has a small dent. It shouldn't be much of a problem.

b. The car drove slowly along the back road. It was quite muddy.

c. I got home late from my date, which was okay.

d. The foothills were covered with flowers. They were many different varieties.

e. The beach was littered with broken glass. I think the park service should look into it.

f. I like his ideas about fall gardens. They just make sense.

g. Whenever the ladies made gingerbread men for the children, they looked delighted.

h. Miss Waldman said if I worked hard I could still get an A or a B, but it didn't happen.

i. The sun was hot, and although the water was polluted, it made me want to dive in anyhow

j. The faster I walked, the more water spilled out of the bucket, and it became a real nuisance.

 


Shift in Tense

The tense of your verb tells when events are taking place—whether in the past, the present, or the future. Early in your writing process, establish a "base tense" for your paper, and shift away from it only for good reason. If you're writing about past events, use the past tense as your base tense. If you're writing about the present or the future, build around one of those tenses.

Early in your writing process, establish a "base tense" for your paper, and shift away from it only for good reason.

 

Change: We went into Bruno's and ordered a pizza. The waitress comes over and brings us our drinks. I can see she's going to spill one.

to:

We went into Bruno's and ordered a pizza. As the waitress came back with our drinks, I could see she was going to spill one.

 

The first example, perhaps effective in casual conversation, isn't precise enough for writing. We can't tell what happened when. The second version locates the experience in the past. Of course when, as in the following example, logic insists you change tense—you should.

During high school I lived with my parents, but now I live with a close friend. Someday I will have a family of my own.

Activity

4.15 Edit the following paragraph for consistency in tense.

The first thing I hear was the terrible scream of somebody's voice blending into the squeal of rubber as we come hurtling down on the Honda from behind. It's my little sister, both hands pressed to the sides of her head, while my dad tried to push the brakes through the floor. Then suddenly we're going sideways, and I see a big church come floating across the windshield. Then I knew we'll crash.


Shift in Person

Here again, the goal is to be clear and consistent. This time, however, the aim is to establish a steady, reliable point of view. Doing so helps the reader understand where the two of you stand in relation to the subject, and generally helps build a strong writer/reader relationship.

Change: Helga is my best friend. She won't let a person down. You can always count on her to be there when you need help.

to:

Helga is my best friend. She won't let me down. I can always count on her to be there when I need help.

... the aim is to establish a steady, reliable point of view.

The writer is probably talking about her own relationship with Helga, not the reader's. Keeping point of view consistent in all three sentences makes that clear.

For our purposes, the main points of view from which to choose correspond to the persons on the Person/Number Chart. Thus, writing based on the first person singular point of view uses "I" and "me" as its foundation, while writing based on the third person plural would use "they" and "them."

First person singular: This point of view is often effective for informal writing, especially for writing about your personal interests and experiences. It draws attention to the writer, which may or may not be a good thing.

I have always enjoyed crocheting for the relaxation it provides me.

First person plural: Slightly more formal than first person singular, this point of view can convey a sense that you and the reader are partners. It takes emphasis away from the writer as an individual and places emphasis on whatever group is designated by "we."

When we look closely at last month's sales figures, we can see what the future holds for our company.

Second person singular or plural: Used carefully, this point of view can make readers feel you are speaking directly to them, are in a sense looking directly at them. Sometimes, however, the second person is blurred into a weak or ineffective substitute for another, more appropriate point of view. Like first person singular, it is generally most effective in personal and informal writing.

strong: You can't imagine how much Helen enjoyed talking with you the other day.

weak: You had to be willing to give a hundred percent whenever you went out on the floor or Coach Bavasi would bench you.

Third person singular and plural: These points of view distance you from your subject and your reader. They make your writing less personal and more formal. They are used for much academic, technical, and scientific writing where tradition or the subject demands an air of distance and objectivity.

A person who violates any of the following laws can expect to receive prompt and immediate punishment. (third person singular)

Students who wish to graduate in June should have their transcripts reviewed by their advisors. (third person plural)

Note: Choosing a dominant point of view doesn't mean you've limited yourself to a single set of pronouns for your whole paper, only that departures from the dominant point of view should be logical and effective.

I hope you told them we would be late.

Activity

4.16 Rewrite the following paragraph twice, each time from a different point of view.

At the entrance of the canyon you could see the vegetation change radically. What struck you most was the sparse, stunted growth of plants otherwise similar to those you had seen a few miles back where the river, calmer and wider, took you through a lush, open area covered with huge trees and some of the longest grasses you had ever seen.


Misrelated Modifier

The reader shouldn't have to guess what you're trying to say.

All modifiers should connect clearly and immediately with the words you want them to modify. The reader shouldn't have to guess what you're trying to say.

Change:

Louisa saw some strange mushrooms playing in the park.

to:

While playing in the park, Louisa saw some strange mushrooms.

Probably it wasn't the mushrooms but Louisa playing in the park. By placing the modifying phrase right next to the word it modifies, we eliminate the confusion. Sometimes careless modifier placement can create several possible meanings.

Change: All afternoon I reminisced about friends I had known with my sister.

to:

All afternoon I reminisced with my sister about friends I had known.

or:

All afternoon I reminisced about friends my sister and I had known.

or:

All afternoon my sister and I reminisced about friends we had known.

In the first example "with my sister" is confusing because it could modify either "reminisced" or "had known" or both. The writer has a responsibility to make such relationships clear.

Activity

4.17 Edit the following sentences for clarity of modification.

a. Rounding the corner too quickly, a light post was sheared-off by the school bus.

b. By not doing my assignments, the course was flunked.

c. After considering all the evidence, the defendant was convicted by a jury of his peers.

d. I found a ripe apple on the counter, which I ate.

e. We have harder lessons for advanced students with difficult problems.

f. I saw him break the window drinking in the park.