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Grammar

Sentence fragments Grammatical agreement Noun-Pronoun agreement Subject-Verb agreement

Sentence fragments

In formal and academic writing, you must use whole sentences. At the very least, a sentence must be made up of a subject and a finite verb. A sentence fragment is a group of words that lacks either a subject or a finite verb. Sentence fragments are often used as titles, and in advertising copy, but have no place in formal writing.

The giraffe eating the leaves. [subject, no finite verb]
Eating the leaves. [no subject, no finite verb]
The giraffe the leaves. [subject, no verb]

All of these are sentence fragments, which do not make sense on their own. Each needs some additional part(s) of speech to make it into a complete sentence. To turn these words into a complete sentence, we must ensure that there is a subject and a finite verb:

The giraffe [subject] ate [finite verb] the leaves.

One of the most common errors is the presentation of a subordinate clause as a sentence on its own.

The giraffe ate the leaves.
While the monkey ate the banana.

The second collection of words in this example is a subordinate or dependent clause, and cannot stand as a sentence on its own. In order to make sense, it must be joined to the previous sentence with an appropriate punctuation mark.

The giraffe ate the leaves, while the monkey ate the banana.
While the monkey ate the banana, the giraffe ate the leaves.

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Grammatical agreement

In the English language, certain words within each sentence have to “agree” with each other; that is to say, certain words must be consistent with their antecedents within a sentence. The endings of the words, or sometimes their whole form, have to match according to certain grammatical principles.

There are two important types of grammatical agreement that sometimes cause writers to make mistakes: noun-pronoun agreement and subject-verb agreement.

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Noun-Pronoun Agreement

A pronoun in a sentence often refers to a noun (or pronoun) earlier in the same sentence (its antecedent). In such cases, the pronoun must agree in number (singular or plural) with the word to which it refers.

This is generally fairly straightforward:

The doctor [singular noun] finished her [singular pronoun] rounds.

The doctors [plural noun] finished their [plural pronoun] rounds.

There are, however, some nouns that are often taken to be plural, but that are actually singular, and thus singular pronouns follow; these are usually names of groups, such as “jury”, “committee”, “couple”:

The planning committee [singular noun] granted its [singular pronoun] permission to build.

The jury [singular noun] reached its [singular pronoun] decision.

It is also important to note that indefinite pronouns – words such as "everyone", "everybody", "no one", "nobody", "someone", "somebody", "something", "anyone", "anybody" – are always singular – that is to say that they will always be followed by “is” rather than by “are”. Thus:

“They are welcome”, but “Everyone is welcome”.

“Either”, “neither”, “none” and “each” are also singular:

“They are not going to be there”, but “Neither is going to be there”.

A difficulty arises from the fact that in English there is no gender neutral singular pronoun. The plural pronoun, “they”, is not gender specific, but this does not have an equivalent in the singular: we can only say he, she, or it. One approach is to use “he or she” or “his/her” in every instance, but this method can soon become cumbersome and unworkable. The simplest, and most widely accepted, solution to this problem is to put the whole sentence into plural form, whereupon it becomes gender neutral. Thus:

“Every mountain climber must check his or her equipment before beginning his or her ascent”

becomes

“All mountain climbers must check their equipment before beginning their ascent”.

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Subject-Verb agreement

The subject of a sentence (whether noun or pronoun) can be either singular or plural. Verbs also have singular and plural forms. The number of a grammatical subject must be consistent with the number of the verb to which it relates: a singular subject requires a singular verb form; a plural subject requires a plural verb form.

The child [singular subject] walks [singular verb] to school.
The children [plural subject] walk [plural verb] to school.

In addition, some pronouns have a person form – first, second or third person – as well as a number: I, you, he, she, it (all singular); we, you, they (all plural). If the subject of the sentence is a pronoun, then the verb must also agree with the person form as well as the number.

He [singular pronoun as subject] walks [singular third person verb] to school.
She [singular pronoun as subject] walks [singular third person verb] to school.
They [plural pronoun as subject] walk [plural third person verb] to school.

It is generally clear what is required, but there are some instances that can cause confusion:

  • If there are lots of words between the subject and the verb, they can draw the verb into the wrong form. Make sure you clearly understand which subject relates to which verb.
  • Be careful when sentences have an unusual word order: be sure that you have correctly identified the subject of the sentence and that it agrees with the verb.
  • Sometimes the subject of a sentence consists of more than one noun, often joined by “and”. The subject is then regarded as plural in nearly all cases.

“Jane’s friend and cousin were happy to see her.”

The structure of this sentence implies that Jane’s friend and Jane’s cousin are two separate people.

On the other hand, if the nouns that are joined by “and” both refer to the same thing, then the verb remains singular:

“Jane’s friend and cousin was happy to see her.”

The structure of this sentence implies that there is one person who is happy to see Jane: her friend, who also happens to be her cousin.

  • Be aware of pronouns that seem plural but are actually singular. As well as those discussed above, others that can prove tricky include the pronoun phrase “more than one”, which always takes a singular verb, despite its plurality: “More than one [singular pronoun phrase] has [singular verb] asked to be excused”.
  • Some nouns look as if they are plural but are really singular, and vice-versa. Nouns which are the name of a group ("class", "jury", "couple", "committee") are regarded as singular unless there is a good reason to think of the members of the group separately.

We must wait while members of the jury [plural subject] make [plural verb] a decision.

but

We must wait while the jury [singular subject] makes [singular verb] a decision.

  • Named titles of works, and phrases being defined, are always singular even when the constituent words in them are plural: “Wuthering Heights [title, thus singular] is [singular verb] a classic text”.
  • Note also that the noun phrase “the number” is singular but the noun phrase “a number” is plural.

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Flinders University Library

Professor Graham Tulloch of the English Department has written a booklet entitled English Grammar: A Short Guide. This text covers fundamental aspects of English grammar, such as parts of a word, parts of a sentence, and parts of speech

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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