Resources for business and technical writing

Making subjects and verbs agree


We all know about subjects and verbs, and we probably all know about “the rule for subjects and verbs.”

The rule is simple, and most of us know it:

Verbs must agree with their subjects.

If the subject is singular, the verb must be singular. If the subject is plural, the verb must be plural. We indicate a plural subject by adding an –s; we indicate a singular verb by adding an –s. For example:

The AESO submits its application.

All the TFOs submit their applications.

However, the context makes it hard to determine if we are dealing with a singular subject or a plural subject. Here are some of the more common contexts that can be confusing.

  1. Words between the subject and the verb
  2. Subjects joined by and
  3. Subjects joined by or or nor
  4. Subjects that are indefinite pronouns
  5. Subjects that are collective nouns
  6. Subjects that follow the verb
  7. Subjects that are relative pronouns
  8. Subjects that have a plural form but a singular meaning
  9. Subjects that are titles, company names, or words mentioned as words
  10. Subjects that indicate portion
  11. Subjects that are measurements or mathematical expressions

 

a. Words between the subject and the verb

Often a word or a phrase comes between the subject and the verb. Usually this modifies the subject but may contain a noun that may appear to be the subject. We need to simplify the sentence to ensure we use the correct verb form for the true subject of the sentence.

The AESO, along with the interveners, is expected at the Hearing.

The subject is the AESO. So the correct verb is is, not are.

b. Subjects joined by and

Generally, the plural verb should be used with two or more subjects joined by and.

The AESO and the interveners are expected at the Hearing.

Exception 1: When the parts of the subject form a single unit, use the singular verb.

Macaroni and cheese is easy to make.

Note: When we have a compound subject joined by and where one of the subjects is singular and one of the subjects is plural, try and place the plural subject last and use the plural verb.

The serving bowl and the plates go on the shelf.

Compare: The plates and the serving bowl go on the shelf.

Also note: Sometimes the subject is separated from the verb with words that seem like and; words such as along with, as well as, besides, and not. Ignore these phrases when determining if the subject is singular or plural.

The Commissioner, along with the analysts, is expected shortly.

Excitement, as well as nervousness, is the cause of her shaking.

c. Subjects joined by either/or or neither/ nor

When we have a compound subject joined with either/or or neither/nor, make the verb agree with the subject nearest the verb.

Neither the chairperson nor the others are available.

d. Subjects that are indefinite pronouns

Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns, and antecedents are the nouns they stand in for. An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun referring to an identifiable but not specified person or thing. The most common indefinite pronouns are all, another, any, anybody, anyone, anything, each, everybody, everyone, everything, few, many, nobody, none, one, several, some, somebody, and someone.

Treat indefinite pronouns as singular, even though they may seem to have a plural meaning.

Each of the stakeholders has been notified.

Everyone consulted favours alternative one.

e. Subjects that are collective nouns

A collective noun is a noun naming a group of things, animals, or people. We usually consider the group as a single unit, so the singular verb is used.

The jury is dining on take-out chicken tonight.

The class was delighted by this revelation.

f. Subjects that follow the verb

Usually the verb comes after the subject of a sentence. However, when the verbs comes before the subject we can get confused about whether the verb should be singular or plural. Fortunately verbs only come before subjects when the sentence begins with there (there is, there are, there was, there were).

There are a capacitor bank and a voltage regulator already installed in the substation.

A less awkward sounding rewrite of this would be to say:

There is a capacitor bank and there is a voltage regulator already installed in the substation.

An even better rewrite might be:

A capacitor bank and a voltage regulator are already installed in the substation.

g. Subjects that are relative pronouns

Relative pronouns are pronouns that stand in for a noun that comes before the pronoun. There are three relative pronouns, who, which and that. We need to ensure that the verb we choose agrees this the antecedent of the relative pronoun.

The answer that everyone missed was “singular.”

Marty is one of the analysts who have done honour to the AESO.

In the second sentence, the relative pronoun refers to “analysts,” which is plural, so the verb must be plural.

Compare this to:

Marty is the only one of the analysts who has done honour to the AESO.

h. Subjects that have a plural form but a singular meaning

Some nouns, like statistics and series, end with –s, so they look like they are plural, but their meaning is singular.

He soon came to a crossroads.

Here is a more complete list: aerobics, acoustics, athletics, billiards, blues (type of music), calculus, civics, crossroads, darts, dominoes, economics, gymnastics, mathematics, measles, mumps, news, Philippines, physics, politics, rickets, scissors, series, shingles, statistics.

i. Subjects that are titles, company names, or words mentioned as words

This rule is simple, titles, company names, and words mentioned as words (not as a grammatical part of the sentence) are singular.

The ISO’s Operating Policies and Procedures is available online at www.aeso.ca/downloads/ISO_OPP_Print.pdf

j. Subjects that indicate portion

Whenever we express a portion of something, using for example, per cent, fraction, part, majority, some, all, none, or remainder, we usually include a prepositional phrase that includes the preposition of. To decide if the verb should be singular or plural, we need to locate the object of the preposition. If the object is singular, use a singular verb. If the object is plural, use a plural verb.

Fifty per cent of the pie has disappeared.

Fifty per cent of the pies have disappeared.

k. Subjects that are measurements or mathematical expressions

Subjects that express time, distance, weight, money, or other measurements are singular if they refer to a unit, or plural when they refer to separate items.

Two-hundred kilometres is a long distance.

Ten dollars is a high price to pay.

Ten years have passed since that project started.

In the first two sentences, the subjects refers to a single unit (distance, price). In the second sentence the subject refers to separate items (years).

Subjects that are mathematical expressions of subtraction or division are singular. Subjects that are mathematical expressions of addition or multiplication can be either singular or plural. However, we usually prefer the singular.

Ten divided by two is five.

Five times seven equals thirty-five.

Keeping our pronouns in line


Like it or not, there are some rules, or at least conventions, that we must adhere to when writing. And one of these concerns pronouns.

Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns, and antecedents are the nouns they stand in for. We use pronouns all the time, and if we didn’t, our language would be very awkward. Consider the following sentence that doesn’t use any pronouns.

Donavan gave Donavan’s dog the dog’s bath.

Now let’s add our pronouns.

Donavan gave his dog its bath.

In this last sentence “his” is a pronoun that stands in for “Donavan” (the antecedent of his), and “its” is a pronoun that stands in for “dog” (the antecedent of its).

We can use pronouns to do any of the following:

  • To name a specific person or thing: “You look like him.”
  • To point to non-specific people or things: “Everyone enjoyed the party, but nobody remembered to thank the hostess.”
  • To point to something: “This is the car I want.”
  • To refer back to the subject: “Baley hurt herself.”
  • To show mutual action: “Jeremy and Shawn were wrestling and hurt each other.”
  • To add emphasis: “I myself love pronouns.”

Here are four common problems we encounter using pronouns:

  1. Pronoun-antecedent agreement
  2. Antecedent confusion
  3. Personal pronoun case
  4. Choosing that or which (or who)

a. Pronoun-antecedent agreement

The rule is simple and fairly well understood; a singular antecedent must have a singular pronoun and a plural antecedent must have a plural pronoun.

The engineer finished his report.

The engineers finished their reports.

This is fairly straight forward, until we encounter indefinite pronouns, generic nouns, or collective nouns.

Indefinite pronouns do not refer to a specific person or thing. Even though indefinite pronouns appear to be plural but we should treat them as singular. Indefinite pronouns include anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, no one, nothing, somebody, someone and something.

In this class everyone works at his or her own pace.

Generic nouns represent a typical member of a group, not the group itself. For this reason, generic nouns are singular even though they may appear plural.

Every accountant must be good at math if he or she wants to succeed.

Collective nouns name a group of things, animals, or people. Although you could count the individual members of the group named by a collective noun, the noun is usually considered singular since it refers to the group as a whole. Collective nouns include audience, committee, company, crowd, department, family, government, public, and team.

The department has made its decision about the budget.

However, this only works if the collective noun acts as a single unit. If the members of the collective noun act individually, we use the plural.

The audience clapped its hand after the performance.

The audience doesn’t own a big collective hand, so we have to use the plural. But then we have: “The audience clapped their hands after the performance,” which is still at best awkward. So we would add “members” to this sentence to give us a clearly plural subject.

The members of the audience clapped their hands after the performance.

To sum up:

  • Collective nouns performing one action as a unit, or possessing an item belonging to the entire group, are singular and required singular pronouns.
  • If the members of the collective noun act as individuals, add a plural subject like “members” and use a plural pronoun.
  • Body parts always belong to individuals, not to a group.

b. Pronoun-Antecedent confusion

Every pronoun must have an antecedent, and the antecedent must be obvious. We don’t want our readers to guess or to spend time trying to figure out what the antecedent might be. We run into trouble when the antecedent is ambiguous, or when our reference to an antecedent is vague or implied.

Ambiguous antecedents occur when we have more than one noun that our pronoun could refer to.

The room contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb. It was twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide.

In the second sentence “it” is a pronoun; an important pronoun because it is the subject of this sentence. But what is the antecedent of “it?” Because of the context of these two sentences, we can figure out that the antecedent must be “the room,” however, according to the last antecedent rule it should actually be the lone light bulb.

The last antecedent rule is used to interpret contracts and other legally binding documents. This rule states:

Referential and qualifying phrases, where no contrary intention appears, refer solely to the last antecedent.

To correct our sentence, we should repeat the noun in the second sentence. And then possibly rewrite the whole thing to avoid beginning all sentences with “the room.”

The room contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb. The room was twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide.

The room, twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide, contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb.

Vague or implied antecedents occur when our pronoun does not refer to a specific pronoun, but rather a group of vague words or ideas. Sometime the actual antecedent is not even mentioned. This leaves our readers guessing what the antecedent might be.

Here at work they expect us to show initiative.

In this sentence, “they” is a pronoun that does not have a specific antecedent. The preceding sentence may have specifically talked about “managers,” but even so, specifically mentioning the antecedent is preferred.

Here at work, our managers expect us to show initiative.

One other obstacle that can introduce pronoun-antecedent confusion is anticipatory reference. Anticipatory reference occurs when the pronoun come before the antecedent. This forces our readers to remember the idea associated with the pronoun, and then search the remaining sentence for the antecedent. Even worse, the reader may assume that the subject of the previous sentence is the antecedent and misunderstand our meaning.

When reserving a table in the dining room, try to get close to a window. If it’s available, be sure to order the champagne.

We should always make sure the antecedent comes first.

When reserving a table in the dining room, try and get close to a window. If champagne’s available, be sure to order it.

c. Personal pronoun case

Personal pronouns, such as I or me, change their case form according to their grammatical function in the sentence. There are three grammatical functions of personal pronouns, and therefore there are three pronoun cases.

  • When the pronoun is the subject of a clause, we use the subjective case of the pronoun.
  • When the pronoun is the object in a clause, we use the objective case.
  • When the pronoun is marker of possession and defines who owns a particular object or person, we use the possessive case.

Subjective case

Objective case

Possessive case

I

me

my

we

us

our

you

you

your

he/she/t

him/her/it

his/her/its

they

them

their

 

Most of us know this, but we can get confused with complex sentence structures.

At the hearing, the most challenging questions for the panel and I came from the landowner who previously worked at the AESO.

In this sentence, the personal pronoun “I” is the object of “for”, so the correct case is “me.”

At the hearing, the most challenging questions for the panel and me came from the landowner who previously worked at the AESO.

A good way to determine the correct case is to strip away the extra words that clutter up the sentence. Then the correct case should be obvious.

… the most challenging questions for me

d. Choosing that or which (or who)

Choosing which instead of that is probably one of the most common mistakes we make.

That introduces a restrictive clause, a clause that limits or restricts the identity of the subject in some way.

Which introduces a non-restrictive clause, a clause that tell us something interesting or incidental about a subject, but it does not define that subject.

The painting that was hanging in the foyer was stolen.

The painting, which was hanging in the foyer, was stolen.

The first sentence uses the fact that the painting was hanging in the foyer as a way to differentiate the stolen painting from all the others. The second sentence merely adds the fact that the stolen painting was hanging in the foyer. This second sentence implies that there are other paintings hanging in the foyer. If this was the only painting hanging in the foyer, then second sentence would be incorrect.

Once we have introduced an essential clause using that we can add additional information about the subject, essential or nonessential, using which.

The Van Gogh that was hanging in the foyer, which we purchased in 1929 for $10,000, was stolen.

That is a decision which you must live with for the rest of your life.

That is a decision you must live with for the rest of your life.

That versus which versus who

We use that and which for clauses about things, and we use who for clauses about people. Since we only have one choice with who, we use commas to distinguish between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.

The suspect in the lineup who has red hair committed the crime.

The suspect in the lineup, who owns a red car, committed the crime.

The first sentence is restrictive and uniquely identifies the guilty person. This sentence requires that there is only one person in the lineup with red hair. The second sentence in non-restrictive and merely informs us that the guilty party owns a red car. To be correct, many of the people in the lineup must or could own a red car.

Is it among or between?


Many believe that between is appropriate when there are two people or things involved, and among is appropriate when there are more than two people or things involved. While this might give you the right answer some of the time, it isn’t strickly correct and you could end up creating awkward feeling sentences like:

Tensions among Canada, Mexico, and the United States eased following the implementation of the NAFTA agreement.

The reason this may feel awkward is because it’s wrong. The correct sentence is:

Tensions between Canada, Mexico, and the United States eased following the implementation of the NAFTA agreement.

Here’s why.  Read more

Writing Succinctly


Writing succinctly, using as few words as necessary, is probably the biggest challenge facing most writers. Most of us use words and phrases in writing that we would never use when speaking. However once we’ve written the words, we feel like we are going in the wrong direction if we remove them. Yet, one big advantage writing offers over speaking is that we can refine our message, making it as succinct as possible.

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Commonly confused words


English is widely regarded as having become the global language and is the dominant international language in communications, science, and business. You would think that with English being so prominent in arenas of logic and commerce, that it would be concise, precise, and devoid of ambiguity. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As Doug Larson stated: “If the English language made any sense, a catastrophe would be an apostrophe with fur.”

Here is a list of English words that are often confused and a description of their correct usage.

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