Daily Archives: December 2, 2006

Why do I keep having trouble with subject-verb agreement?

OK, what are we talking about here?

First you need to be able to find verbs in a sentence, and there will be one at least 99.9% of the time. Then you ask, WHO? WHAT? + VERB. Congratulations: you have found the SUBJECT!

  • English is stupid.
  • Chinese students work harder. Hey, you must be joking! Well, yes, I am.
  • You see, all those verbs and subjects agree. You wouldn’t say I is joking or Chinese students works hard, would you?

    Want more about subjects and verbs?

    Here is more information on subject-verb agreement.

    You can find many tests and quizzes on this in the links under “Quiz pages”. Here is just one, not all that easy either!

    So why do people still forget this?

    If you have as your first language one that does not mark subjects and verbs by changing something, like Chinese or Indonesian or Vietnamese, then it is easy to forget about it in English. After all, it doesn’t really make much difference to the meaning of what you say; it just sounds, well, silly to an English speaker — like some poor English speaker trying to cope with tone in Mandarin and getting it wrong, except actually less serious than that. (I once introduced myself to a group of Chinese in my very poor Mandarin thus: “Hello. I am Neil Whitfield and I am a dumpling.” when I really meant “teacher.” Tone, you see…)

    It is important not to get so nervous about agreement that you slow your writing down to a crawl. And for heaven’s sake, throw away the white-out! Better to get your ideas down quickly and correct for agreement later, by crossing out if necessary.

    The good news is that it is not such a problem when you write in past tense, as English doesn’t really change much except in present tenses. The bad news is most essays are actually written in present tense, except in History and in some other types of Factual Report writing. That’s because talking about literature, or stating general truths, is done in present tense — just like this sentence, really!

    Be glad if you learn some French or German or Latin, or any other European language. These studies make you much more aware of subject-verb agreement because many other European languages mark agreement much more than English does.

    Even native speakers of English have trouble with subject-verb agreement under certain circumstances; in a long sentence, for example, you may have a number of words in between the subject and the verb: it is easy to lose track and forget to make the subject and verb agree. And there are some words, especially ones that stand for groups (like ‘the team’) where your choice is not easy. Should it be the team is or the team are? Well, that depends on whether you are thinking of “the team” as a single unit (is) or as many individuals (are).

  • I recommend advanced students look at R W Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd edition Oxford University Press 1996) under the word agreement.
  • For an easier explanation of agreement, see this very useful book, which you might consider buying: A Student’s A to Z of Grammar, Usage and Style by Steve Moline (Melbourne, Oxford University Press 2002.) This book is very much up-to-date and tells you a lot about types of writing, problems in grammar and word-choice, media study, computing terms… Excellent from Year 7 all the way to Year 12. There are many other such books available.
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    Posted by on December 2, 2006 in English grammar, English language, questions asked


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    What tense should I use when I write about literature?

    Here is a short example:

    The Fellowship of the Ring is beautifully written, creative and gripping. I found that its detail, in terms of historical background and descriptions of settings and characters, allowed me to understand and empathize with the characters to the greatest degree I have experienced. The characters’ feelings became mine also. Even the sounds of the footsteps of the Elves, Dwarfs, and Hobbits are described vividly in the book. The details are what make the novel more complete than other novels. They fill up the story and make the book seem flawless. The novel has prepared
    me for the second and third instalments of the trilogy with success and ease.

    That paragraph was written by a Year 10 student at another school. Ben is of Cantonese-speaking background. I have corrected his work in a few places, usually to change tense or to make subject and verb agree. See the next entry on that one.

    Ben is writing a type of Response Essay, in this case a book review.

  • Study his sentences carefully. Find the verbs.
  • Notice how he uses present tense (or if he didn’t I have corrected him) whenever he talks about the text. Even “has prepared” is a kind of present tense called present perfect tense. This tense is often used to mean something that began in the past but still affects you now.
  • You write in present tense in essays like this for two reasons. 1) The text exists in the present. Imagine it is in front of you and you are telling someone what you see, what is in that text. 2) General statements of truth are in present tense. All rowers are wonderful! for example.
  • Hey, what about Ben’s second sentence? Isn’t that in past tense? Well spotted. Yes it is, but that is because he has shifted from talking about the text to talking about himself and what he experienced. The same would happen if he started talking about some history behind the book, such as Tolkien’s life, or what happened in World War I that led to Tolkien writing The Lord of the Rings. Notice too that Ben is reporting thoughts there, so when he says I found (past tense) the THAT-clause following needs to be in past tense too.

    So, the rule is talk about the text in present tenses, but if you shift focus to talking about yourself or history, you may need past tenses for that part. Remember to go back to present tenses as soon as you are talking about the text again.