Back to basics: singular or plural verb forms with “and” and “or”?

This might not seem basic, but it is. Subject/verb agreement is basic. All it means is that singular subjects take singular verb forms, and plural subjects take plural verb forms. Like this:

The tomatoes are growing well this year. (“Tomatoes” is plural, so it takes “are” as its verb form.)

This tomato shows signs of blight. (“Tomato” is singular, so it takes “shows” as its verb form.)

The thing that throws some people, though, is when there’s an “and” or an “or” in the complete subject. What happens then?

Thomas or William needs to call the realtor.

That “or” (a conjunction) causes the verb form to be singular, because grammatically there’s only one person (either Thomas or William) who has to perform the action (call the realtor). Yes, we can say “either Thomas or William needs to call,” but that changes the structure of the sentence; now “either” is the subject, as a pronoun standing for “Thomas or William,” and that defeats the purpose of this lesson. Remember, there are often many ways to say the same thing in English, and all of them are “correct.” They don’t all illustrate the same point, though.

Thomas and William need to call the realtor.

Now the subject is plural: “Thomas and William.” The verb form changes to the plural, “need.”

Now it’s time for me to crib from the excellent Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner (of Garner’s English Usage). I can’t say it any clearer than he does, so I’ll paraphrase from section 5.14.

As I said earlier, if the noun subjects are connected with “and,” the verb form is plural (see Thomas and William and the realtor, above). If there’s a prepositional phrase, though, the verb is controlled by the noun or nouns that are NOT part of the phrase, like this:

William, along with his partner, Thomas, needs to call the realtor. (The phrase “along with his partner, Thomas” does not combine with “William” to control the verb.)

I’m going to stop there, because it would be awfully easy to get deep into the weeds here and say nothing of much use. If you have a question related to agreement, by all means leave it in the comments and I’ll address it.

 

The seventh link of Christmas: Plain language

This is the smallest of my collections, which says something itself, I think.

I share what I find, and I find very little. In my experience, new writers tend to think they have to use florid language (big words, fancy syntax) to make their writing worthwhile.

Nope. If the writer is capable, that’s one thing. If the writer’s new, chances are good that simpler language (in both words and construction/syntax) will be the better option. Again, I’m speaking from my experience as a freelance editor. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

This little collection contains posts on legal, medical, academic, and business writing. You’ll see some familiar names, I think: Bryan A. Garner, Steven Pinker, Conscious Style Guide, and even the Mental Floss site. (AND June Casagrande, one of my editorial heroes.)

Superannuated Syntax: Bradford, Edwards, and Holmes

What do those three men have in common?

One is fictional. Two were ministers. The phrase “There but for the grace of God goes [name]” is associated with all three.

“But for the grace of God”? What does “but for” mean in that phrase? I’ll wager you’ve heard it often, and perhaps even said it, but what does it mean? Continue reading “Superannuated Syntax: Bradford, Edwards, and Holmes”

Let’s chew some GUM.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics. And we’ll throw in Syntax and Style for good measure. And no, those won’t be capped for the entire post. That’d be silly. First use is plenty, because now you readers know what the Important Terms are going to be for the rest of this discussion. (That’s a style thing. You’ll learn more about it later.)

We can’t write or speak—we can’t use language—without at least four of those things. Grammar tells us the rules that explain how our words work. It tells us about nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, and more. It tells us what we need for a complete sentence (a subject and a verb). It tells us how to form a question. Grammar is a set of rules. Not suggestions, not guidelines. Rules. And you know what? Most of us learn these rules by osmosis. We absorb them from hearing other people talk; we are exposed to them when we read. (Sadly, we may read poorly-written material and learn the wrong things, but that’s another post for another time.) Continue reading “Let’s chew some GUM.”