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]
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.
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.
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.
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”
“All mountain climbers must check their equipment before beginning
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
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.
It is generally clear what is required, but there are some instances that can cause confusion:
“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.
We must wait while members of the jury [plural subject] make [plural verb] a decision.
We must wait while the jury [singular subject] makes [singular verb] a decision.
|©2006 Flinders University||Style Guide Home • Top |