A HUGE part of getting grammar right involves the concept of agreement. It’s pretty simple. All the elements of a sentence have to agree with each other: in tense, in quantity, in order.
Okay, here are some sample sentences. See if you can figure out what is wrong with each of them.
- Amanda is bored by the movie so she went into the lobby to look at the candy display.
- If Mary and her daughter arrives too early, feel free to let them in.
- The Organization of American States convene twice per year.
- Each of the scholars were proud of their award.
- Either my sisters or my brother visit Mom every day.
One of the reasons English is such a hard language to learn is the number of irregular verbs. Sometimes it is difficult to determine the best verb to use in order for the tenses to agree. In sentence one, the first half of the sentence is occurring in present tense.
Amanda IS bored by the movie…
Unfortunately, the second half of the sentence is in past tense.
…so she WENT into the lobby to look at the candy display.
The tenses have to agree so, if the action is happening right now, both parts of the sentence have to be in present tense; it would also work for both of the verbs to be in past tense. Just be careful in your writing that you choose a tense and stick with it.
Amanda IS bored by the movie so she GOES into the lobby to look at the candy display.
Amanda WAS bored by the movie so she WENT into the lobby to look at the candy display.
Sentence two is an issue of subject/verb agreement. The first step is to determine the subject of the sentence i.e. who is doing the action. Start with the verb: arrives. Who is arriving? Is it just Mary? Then the verb should agree with a singular subject. But it isn’t just Mary. It is Mary AND her daughter. Therefore, the subject is plural and the verb has to be as well. The sentence needs to read as follows:
If Mary and her daughter ARRIVE too early, feel free to let them in.
Sometimes, as in sentence three, the subject is a bit more difficult to determine – or, more specifically, the nature of the subject. In this case, it seems natural to assume that the Organization of American States would be plural since, obviously, the organization has more than one member. Yet, this is not how this kind of subject is handled. The ‘organization’ is a single entity. If the sentence described more than one organization, the subject could be plural but, in this case, it is not. The same would be true of an association, a confederation, even an unnamed group (such as when you refer to the ‘group of boys’ or the ‘classroom full of children.’) The sentence needs to read as follows:
The Organization of American States CONVENES twice per year.
Sentence four is a similar situation. Again, the problem is easily solved by identifying the subject of the sentence. ‘Scholars’ is not the subject of the sentence; the true subject is ‘each.’ It makes sense if you think about it. It doesn’t necessarily require noting that scholars (in general) are proud of awards. The point the writer wants to make is that EACH of the scholars felt proud. As a result, the verb in the sentence needs to agree with ‘each,’ which is singular.
And we have one more issue with this one. If the subject is singular and the verb is in its singular form, then the pronoun that refers to the subject ALSO needs to be singular. It isn’t proper grammar to use the word ‘their’ when referring to a singular subject and even though it is a bit awkward to use ‘his or her, at this point in our grammatical history, it is the only appropriate choice. (Sometimes people want to use ‘their’ as a way of avoiding gender discrimination but, unfortunately, English just doesn’t have a singular, non-gendered pronoun other than ‘it.’) The sentence needs to go like this:
Each of the scholars WAS proud of HIS OR HER award.
Sentence five provides one more example of agreement. Two things are different here. First, the subjects are both singular and plural (‘sisters’ and ‘brother.’) Second, instead of being joined by ‘and,’ the subjects are joined with ‘or.’ When having to make a choice between two different forms, the rule is to make the verb agree with the subject that is closest to the verb in the sentence. In this case, the closest subject is ‘brother’ so the verb should be singular. Also, as in sentence three, if the joining word had been ‘and,’ the whole subject would be considered plural and the use of ‘visit’ as a plural verb would have been correct. Here is what the sentence should say:
Either my sisters or my brother VISITS Mom every day.
Sounds awkward, doesn’t it? So, here’s a tip. Change the sentence. This sentence could sound a whole lot better simply by changing the order of the subjects. Try it like this:
Either my brother or my sisters visit Mom every day.
Now, the verb agrees with the plural ‘sisters’ and acknowledges that, even if the whole subject isn’t technically plural, it sure sounds that way!