Follow the yellow brick road: Take steps to fix problems with subject-verb agreement
ONLINE COLUMN: Watch Your Language
Published: September 17, 2009
Life used to be simpler: no Facebook, no YouTube, no MySpace. Nowadays, though, everybody uses these and other distractions to avoid working. Perhaps even some writers are guilty of this. Nah, not you … Well, even if you don't use the Internet to avoid figuring out your next plot point, you do need to be aware of some dangerous distractions for writers: certain words or phrases that cause you to make mistakes with your subject-verb agreement. We writers need to watch out for this distracting stuff. If we don't, our credibility might be shot. Bonnie Trenga
Let's review the basics for a minute. I know that you know this already, but please bear with me. Even the best writers are occasionally careless with their subjects and verbs. A singular subject agrees with a singular verb, and a plural subject agrees with a plural verb. A singular subject involves a single item (e.g., "the tornado") or a lone person (e.g., "the Wicked Witch"). A plural subject involves more than one item or person, such as "some incorrect sentences" or "the unhappy copy editors."
Your subject-verb agreement is most likely fine when the subject lies close to the verb, as it is here: "The Wicked Witch is melting." The singular subject "Wicked Witch" pairs up with the singular verb "is melting." Obviously. I'm certain, though, that you sometimes commit a ghastly grammar goof when the subject is far from the verb. When you are in a hurry or are trying to cram too much into one sentence, careless errors strike.
Writers need to concentrate and stay on the yellow brick road. You can't get on the correct path, though, unless you're aware of the three main distractions that come between the subject and the verb. The sneaky things that distract you and lead you to use the wrong verb are prepositional phrases; the word "and"; and "who," "which" and "that" clauses.
Let's tackle the most common troublemaker first: a prepositional phrase. Writers sometimes get confused because they mistakenly think that the last word of such a phrase is the subject. As the Wizard of Oz himself said, "Ignore the man behind the curtain." You too must temporarily ignore a prepositional phrase when it follows the main word of your subject. Let's dissect this Criminal Sentence, which I found in a book:
The meaning of these words aren't known.
And the correctness of grammar aren't known, either. In this bad sentence, the prepositional phrase "of these words" is in the way, and it apparently stunned the writer into confusion. If you just take it out for a minute, you can clearly see that the subject, "the meaning," is singular. Therefore, the verb should be "isn't" instead of "aren't": The meaning of these words isn't known.
The pesky word "and" also causes some problems with subject-verb agreement. As we all know, the word "and" joins two (or more) items together. Logically, a compound subject, such as "Dorothy and Toto," takes a plural verb. Sometimes, though, writers mess up even this seemingly simple kind of sentence. Take, for example, this Criminal Sentence, which I heard while on hold to make a doctor's appointment:
Your patience and consideration is very much appreciated.
I did not appreciate that at all, and my patience was as sore as my throat. Amnesiac writers forget about the first part of their subject, so they use the wrong verb. The person who wrote this beauty certainly suffered some memory loss, because he or she forgot that "patience" and "consideration" are two separate things. Mr. or Ms. Careless should have used "are" instead: Your patience and consideration are very much appreciated.
Now on to those devious "who," "which" and "that" clauses. They interfere in the same way as prepositional phrases, but not when they're alone. For example, it's very unlikely that writers would make a mistake like this:
The Wicked Witch, who was having tea with her sisters, like monkeys.
We know that the sentence should read like this: The Wicked Witch, who was having tea with her sisters, likes monkeys.
These clauses cause a problem when a sentence contains one of them along with a prepositional phrase or an "and." Take this Criminal Sentence, which contains two distracting "who" clauses and an "and":
The defendant, who was going on trial for murder, and her attorney, who was just out of law school, was late to court.
When your sentence is too long, as it is here, too much stuff is in the way and you make an error. Again, forget the man behind the curtain. The compound subject hidden amidst all the verbiage is "the defendant and her attorney," so the verb should be "were": The defendant, who was going on trial for murder, and her attorney, who was just out of law school, were late to court.
Now we must click our heels together and concentrate on how to fix these common errors, which make readers question your integrity. It's actually quite easy to stay on the yellow brick road. Simply find your subject and circle just the word (or words) that form the subject--and ignore everything else. Then, underline the verb and check if subject and verb match. If they don't, fix the problem.
These circles and underlines might seem tedious, but please mark up your pages until you learn to ignore all of these distractions. Both you and your readers will feel much better if you examine your work thoroughly and get rid of careless errors.
Here are three Criminal Sentences to help you practice:
Criminal Sentence 1: The use of cell phones and pagers are prohibited.
Criminal Sentence 2: The safety and well-being of neighborhoods surrounding the airport has become a serious concern.
Criminal Sentence 3: The problem with these sandwiches, which my son fixed for me, are that they contain mustard.
Please fix these sick sentences before the Wicked Witch gets you. Send your corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll let you know if you made it back to Kansas or not.
Criminal Sentence 1: The use of cell phones and pagers is prohibited.
Criminal Sentence 2: The safety and well-being of neighborhoods surrounding the airport have become serious concerns.
Criminal Sentence 3: The problem with these sandwiches, which my son fixed for me, is that they contain mustard.
Bonnie Trenga is the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing, available for purchase online and at bookstores nationwide. She blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, which features the daily Criminal Sentence and other posts about writing. She is also a guest writer for the popular Grammar Girl podcast. She's been a copy editor since 1996 and a mom since 2001. You can reach her at email@example.com.
--Posted Sept. 17, 2009