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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Are You in Agreement?

I found this headline yesterday in a magazine I was reading:  ONE IN FOUR SENIORS STRUGGLESIs this headline grammatically correct?  Does it sound like something's not correct?  Are you in agreement with the author/editor, or do you disagree?

Agreement in the grammar world often seems tricky.  However, the headline is grammatically correct -- "one" is actually the subject, not "seniors," and "struggles" is the predicate. ("In four seniors" is a prepositional phrase, and, as I used to explain to my students, subjects are never, ever in preppy phrases.  Preppy phrases are simply extra information.)

Both "one" and "struggles" are singular, and therefore, in agreement. (Some people automatically associate an "s" with "plural" which is incorrect in the world of verbs, so if you think of the "s" on most regular verbs as starting the word "singular," you will be able to remember which verb is which.) 

Although you are familiar with the singular and plural forms of nouns, pronouns, and verbs, you may still include "agreement errors" in your sentences.  So why do these errors occur?  As you proofread, perhaps you fail to analyze your sentences correctly and do not determine the true subjects of the sentences.  Certain sentence constructions tend to make it more difficult, unless you take the time to actually look at the sentence's construction, to find the true subject.

In many sentences a phrase intervenes between the subject and the verb, as in the example above, and it's easy then to become confused and make a mistake about the number of the verb.  Just as an intervening phrase can do, a clause can also come between the subject and verb, making it more difficult for you to choose the correct form of the verb.

Remember the basic principle of agreement:  The verb must agree with its subject, not with any modifiers the subject may have.

Here's the actual grammar rule:  The number of the subject is not changed by a phrase or clause following the subject.


This tape is by the Boston Pops Orchestra.

This tape of songs from a Broadway musical is by the Boston Pops Orchestra.  [Tape is still the subject.  "Of songs" and "from a Broadway musical" are both prepositional phrases.]

The girl is our next-door neighbor.  ["Girl" is singular, and "is" is singular.]

The girl who sells eggs is our next-door neighbor.  [Girl is, not eggs are. "Who sells eggs" is a clause.]

Tsetse flies, which carry the dreaded disease called sleeping sickness, attack both humans and cattle.

A single milk pail, in addition to a rotting log and bird tracks, appears in a painting by Andrew Wyeth.

Agreement is important in constructing your sentences and writing correctly.  Do you agree? 

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