Your Copy Sucks: subject/verb/pronoun agreement, or how to count

Hands countingLast week, we here at the PRBC HQ received one of Cog‘s many passive-aggressive e-mails about meeting our deadlines. We don’t really mind those e-mails; we usually ignore them while our deadlines go whooshing by. But this one was more ingeniously manipulative than most. “For those of you without posts in the queue,” it said, “(and you two know who you are) this is a reminder to get your posts in on Sunday as early as you can.”

Obviously our internal e-mail thread devolved into lots of people apologizing for being one of those two. Which was weird, because at least 10 people came forward to claim their place of shame in those two slots. Waitacottonpickin’ minute, I said, clearly we are all slackers, not just two of us! You really made us scared, Cog, that we were only one of two deadbeats in the group. Cog tried to defend himself by saying that “you two” referred to the two goody-two-shoes that DID finish their posts under the deadline.

Which is just not cricket. As anyone with eyes can see, “you two” was a reference to the sentence’s subject, which was “those of you without posts.” We yelled about it for a bit, and then I decided to duck yet another deadline just under the wire with a post of subject/verb/pronoun agreement, because I GUESS some of us still need a reminder.

As my self-indulgent little story illustrates, the importance of agreement in sentences is to head off misunderstandings at the pass. In English especially, we have a lot of instances in which one word can make all the difference. “The deer is coming into the house” sure sounds a lot less dangerous then “the deer are coming into the house.” One deer, okay, maybe we can handle that. Multiple deer? Time to start panicking.

So! Subject/verb agreement. The point is, if you just keep track of how many things you’re talking about, you should be able to figure out what sort of verb to use. You only have two choices: one or more than one. So as soon as you tick off that second finger, you should know.

Beware of tricky kinda-sorta subjects that will trip you up. Even if there are a lot of things in your subject, the word that describes them might be singular. A group is one thing, even if its descriptor ends with an S. Remember mapping out sentences in grade school? Yeah, same thing. Just figure out what the true subject is.

This group of flacks is the laziest I’ve ever seen.

One of the battlegrounds of American grammar is the subject none. None means literally “not one,” and since the word one is singular, it should follow that the verb agreement is singular as well. So you would say, “None is left.” But the problem with none is that it so often refers to a plurality, and honestly, using a verb like “are” or “were” isn’t incorrect as long as it’s not intended to be singular.

Complicated! But as long as your writely heart is in the right place and you’re consistent, I won’t throw rocks at you.

Now back to Cog’s faux pas. It wasn’t actually a pronoun that he used, but it was a phrase that referred back to something, and it probably has a very complex grammatical name that I’m too uninterested in looking up right now. The point is you have to keep track of your sentence’s phrases and keep them all in line much like soldiers in an army. Every word is relying on the others to make sense.

This kind of thing drives me crazy:

A country deep in the Amazon rain-forest, Beth was so excited to visit Brazil.

Really! Beth is a country that is deep in the Amazon rain-forest? That is so weird; I’ve never heard of the Republic of Beth.

Do you see what’s happened there? That beginning phrase is clearly supposed to refer to Brazil, but it was placed right next to the subject of our sentence, Beth, in a way that implies it is referring to her. Which is just silly. Beth is not a country, she’s a lady.

So change sentences like

With 300 horsepower and four-wheel drive, Jameson Motors has been manufacturing the Leopard Roadster for over ten years.


Jameson Motors has been manufacturing the 300 horsepower, four-wheel drive Leopard Roadster for over ten years.

See? Jameson doesn’t have those characteristics. Its car does. God, if I had a nickel for every time I saw this sort of thing in a press release, well, I’d have some nickels, I guess.


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  • bethvonbehren

    Nice post. I have a couple of things to add. First, Cog's problem, it seems to me, was one of comprehension rather than grammar. He forgot to whom he was speaking. People do that all the time. I think it's because we are thinking three to four sentences ahead but writing in the present. Sometimes it happens when we edit ourselves but don't go back and proofread a third time.

    Second, some people believe that you should never, NEVER, start a sentence with an introductory clause such as “With 300 horsepower and four-wheel drive,” because it's just bad writing. If you don't start a sentence this way, you don't have to worry about agreement.

    A rule of thumb, if you really want to improve your writing, is to NEVER use the “to be” verb. Getting around “is” and “are” will train you to be a much better, more descriptive, writer because you have to restructure your sentence, which requires that you restructure your thinking.

    When I was in college, back in the Stone Age, I had to write all of my papers on a manual typewriter (a 1917 Underwood Standard, to be exact). Some journalism teachers still require that students write their first draft on a manual typewriter. If you have to ask why, you're not thinking.