6 Major Grammatical Rules in English 1) Subject-Verb Agreement

6 Major Grammatical Rules in English
1) Subject-Verb Agreement
When we talk about grammatical agreement, we are referring to an almost mathematical rule
in English, as basic as 1+1=2. The words singular and plural are the terms of the equation. In
the case of the subject and verb of a sentence, if the subject is singular, the verb must be singular.
If the subject is plural, the verb must be plural. The subject pronouns in English are: I, you, he,
she, it, we, they. I, you, he, she, and it are singular subjects. We and they are plural subjects.
These pronouns represent all the possible subjects in English. So, when scanning a sentence for
subject-verb agreement, you first must determine if the subject is singular or plural. Knowing
which pronoun would fit the subject will help you to do that.
Next, you have to do the same for the verb. The first thing to remember about the singularplural distinction with verbs is that verbs are constructed differently from nouns (subjects). To
make a regular noun plural, we simply add an s, but an s on a verb means the opposite. To
understand that, you need to remember how we conjugate verbs in English. If you’ve taken a
foreign language class, then you know all about conjugating verbs, but all of you conjugate verbs
everyday; you just do it instinctively. Conjugating simply means to classify the forms of the
verb according to changes in subject. For example, here is the present tense conjugation of the
verb to walk:
1st person (singular) = I walk
2nd person (singular) = you walk
3 person (singular) = he/she/it walks
1st person (plural) we walk
3rd person (plural) they walk
Notice two things about that: First, the third category, 3rd person singular, is the only one in
which the verb changes. Second, that form of the verb can include three different pronouns. So,
this tells you that the only reason to have an s on the end of a verb is if the subject is a he, she, or
it. Therefore, if the subject is an I, you, we, or they, the verb cannot have an s on it. If you keep
that simple rule in mind, you won’t make subject-verb agreement errors.
Jim walks to work (the subject is a he, so the verb has an s).
Jane and Jim walk home (the subject is a they, so the verb has no s).
Note: the rule of subject-verb agreement in English is really only an issue in the present tense
because other tenses don’t include that 3rd person singular change.
Jim walked to work.
Jane and Jim walked home.
2) Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement
Though the sentence parts are different in this case, the basic principle of agreement is the
same: singular goes with singular, plural with plural. To understand this rule, it is worth taking
time to consider what pronouns are for. We discussed subject pronouns above, but there are
several other types, such as object pronouns (me, you, him, her, it, us, them) and possessive
pronouns (my, your, his, her, its, our, their). We use pronouns all the time; we need them.
Consider what life would be like if we didn’t have them. It would mean that we would have to
name the specific noun of a sentence every time we referred to it. That specific noun is the
pronoun’s antecedent. Ante literally means before, which makes sense because you can’t use a
pronoun without referring to a specific subject. For example, when I use the first person
pronoun, I am referring to Buell Wisner. Another way of saying that is that Buell Wisner is the
antecedent to I, in my case. Pronouns need antecedents. Otherwise they are meaningless. Once
you understand this fundamental concept, the agreement rule for pronouns and antecedents is
easy to apply. If the pronoun is singular, then the antecedent should be singular, and if the
pronoun is plural, then the antecedent should be plural. As with subjects and verbs, the main
trouble area for most people lies with the 3rd person singular.
Jim (antecedent) forgot his (pronoun) textbook.
Jim and Jane (antecedent) forgot their (pronoun) textbooks.
Note: the words everyone, everything, and anyone are singular antecedents. And, the words each
and every before any noun create a singular subject.
Also note: the pronoun he is no longer considered generic. There are several ways to be
inclusive when using the 3rd person singular pronoun, such as he or she, but remember that you
also can fix a problem like that by making the antecedent plural and use they, if possible
Every student (antecedent) needs to pass ENGL 1101 with a C or better before
they (pronoun) can take ENGL 1102.
The pronoun and antecedent do not agree here, and the error can be fixed by changing the
pronoun to he or she, or you could change the antecedent like so:
All students need to pass ENGL 1101 with a C or better before they can take
ENGL 1102.
Note: In this case, the verb also needs to change in order to reflect a change in the
3) Sentence Fragment
When an archaeologist discovers a fragment of a bowl, what does she have? She has a piece
of a bowl, right? Similarly, a sentence fragment is only a piece of a sentence. Yet, it is
punctuated as if it were a whole sentence. What do you need in order to have a complete
sentence? You need a subject, and you need a verb.
I laughed.
I cried.
Although those are both complete sentences, more often than not we need more than two
words to complete an idea. That is where the problems tend to arise. Sometimes we want to
combine several thoughts into one sentence, but not all those thoughts are of equal importance.
So, we subordinate. A subordinate clause is a phrase in a sentence that is of lesser importance, in
terms of meaning and emphasis, than the independent clause. An independent clause can stand
on its own as a sentence; that’s why they are called independent. A subordinate, or dependent,
clause cannot stand on its own as a sentence. Often, sentence fragments occur when dependent
clauses try to pass themselves off as independent.
Take the first sentence of the above paragraph as an example:
Although those are both complete sentences, more often than not we need more than two words
to complete an idea.
The comma in that sentence separates the subordinate clause from the independent
clause. The word although makes that clause dependent on the next idea in the independent
clause. It is considered a subordinating conjunction. Perhaps the most popular subordinating
conjunction is because.
We’re off to see the Wizard. Because he does wonderful things.
The second sentence is a fragment. Why? Because.
Combining the two sentences completes the idea: We’re off to see the Wizard because he
does wonderful things.
Note: A comma is used only when a because clause begins a sentence.
Example: Because he does wonderful things, we’re off to see the Wizard.
In general, remember that a sentence is supposed to communicate a complete idea. Your
common sense will help you to spot subordinate clauses that are pretending to be independent.
You can then join them to an appropriate independent clause.
4) Comma Splices
What do we mean by splice? My dad was an electrician for over 40 years, and when he
spliced a wire, basically he took two different wires and made one. Likewise, filmmakers will
take two different pieces of film and splice them. The concept of the comma splice is similar,
but it is essential to remember that a comma splice is an error. My dad would not have used a
tape measure to splice wires; it’s not the appropriate tool to do the job. That is an appropriate
way to think about comma splices. By itself, the comma is not the right tool to use in order to
join sentences. If you have two complete sentences joined only by a comma, then you have a
comma splice.
Class begins at 3:30 on Wednesday, it will end at its normal time.
There are three different ways to fix a comma splice:
Change the comma to a period
Example: Class begins at 3:30 on Wednesday. It will end at its normal time.
Change the comma to a semi-colon
Example: Class begins at 3:30 on Wednesday; it will end at its normal time.
A note about semi-colons: It’s important to remember that, grammatically, the semi-colon, that
androgynous creature, functions just like a period.
Add a coordinating conjunction. There are 7 coordinating conjunctions in English.
One cute way to remember them all is with the acronym FANBOYS: For, And, Nor,
But, Or, Yet, So. If you add the appropriate conjunction after the comma, you will
have correctly “Spliced” two sentences together.
Example: Class begins at 3:30 on Wednesday, but it will end at its normal time.
5) Fused Sentences
Sometimes this particular error is referred to as a “run-on” sentence, but I prefer the term
“fused sentence” because a run-on sentence can be grammatically correct, even though it
continues to “run on” and on, adding more information with phrases and clauses, and you keep
reading it hoping against hope for that light at the end of the tunnel, some signal that you can
stop and catch your breath, but, no, this twisted writer is like some megalomaniac drill instructor
who would just as soon see you keel over with a burst heart than make it to the top of that hill, all
the while stepping on your heels and insisting on addressing you as “maggot,” and when you
finally reach that period, you think you will never again breathe like a normal person.
A fused sentence is, quite simply, two sentences that are joined together without any
punctuation whatsoever; they are “fused” together.
Class begins at 3:30 on Wednesday it will end at its normal time.
To put it another way, a fused sentence is a comma splice without the comma. Once you have
found exactly where the sentences are fused, you can correct the error by using one of the three
options for fixing a comma splice.
i) Add a period
ii) Add a semi-colon
iii) Add a comma and a coordinating conjunction
6) Apostrophes
First of all, remember that we use apostrophes for two entirely different reasons: to form
contractions and to show possession.
A contraction is another kind of “splicing” operation used to combine two words into
one. The apostrophe is placed where letters have been deleted.
The contraction of cannot is can’t
The contraction of were not is weren’t
The contraction of will not is won’t
The contraction of it is is it’s
Note: People often get it’s confused with the possessive pronoun its
It’s raining.
The dog is wagging its tail.
You will never make this mistake if you remember the simple equation: It’s = It is. That is
always true.
This is the more complex use of the apostrophe, the one that causes most people to make
apostrophe errors. Possession is often defined as showing ownership. We can show ownership
by using the possessive pronouns (my, your, his, her, its, our, their), or if we want to use the
specific name, we use ‘s.
That is Dave’s house.
Note: In this case, Dave’s is not a contraction. If you try to read it as a contraction, you end up
with nonsense: That is Dave is house. Instead, the ‘s here is used to communicate that the house
in question belongs to Dave.
When using apostrophes to show ownership, it is also important to remember that ‘s and s’ mean
two different things. The first is used exclusively for singular subjects, and the second is used
mainly for plural subjects.
Example: That is the Bowns’ house.
Note: When editing for apostrophe use, you need to be able to distinguish between an s used to
form a plural subject and an s used to form a plural possessive.
The boys forgot their coats.
The boys’ coats are on the bed.
Finally, always remember that nouns can only possess other nouns. They cannot possess verbs.