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Sentence Agreement

Agree to Disagree

Like subjects and verbs, pronouns and antecedents (the words to which they refer) must agree. A pronoun replaces a noun. To make sure that your writing is clear, always use the noun before using the pronoun. Follow these rules to make sure that your pronouns and antecedents get on well:

  1. A pronoun agrees (or matches) its antecedent in number, person, and gender.
    • Number is amount: singular or plural.
    • Person refers to the first person, second person, or third person (the person speaking, the person spoken to, or the person spoken about).
    • Gender refers to masculine, feminine, or neuter references. He and him are masculine in gender, she and her are feminine, and it and its are neuter.
    • For example:
    • Louise gave her paycheck straight to the orthodontist.
    • Both the antecedent Louise and the pronoun her are singular, in the third person, and feminine in gender.
    • Errors often occur when there are incorrect shifts in person and gender. For example:
    • Error: Herman will screen the video teleconference, which you need to stay timely.
    • Correct: Herman will screen the video teleconference, which he needs to stay timely.
  2. Use a singular personal pronoun with a singular indefinite pronoun.
    • If anyone questions the amount, refer him or her to payroll.
    • The singular pronouns him or her refer to the singular pronoun anyone.
    • Each police officer and firefighter has to watch his or her figure.
    • Use a singular pronoun if the nouns are preceded by each or every.
  3. Use a plural pronoun when the antecedents are joined by and. This is true even if the antecedents are singular.
    • Toody and Muldoon maintain their svelte figures by eating bean sprouts rather than donuts.
    • Because the two singular antecedents Toody and Muldoon are joined by and, use the plural pronoun their.
  4. Antecedents joined by or, nor, or correlative conjunctions such as either/or, neither/nor agree with the antecedent closer to the pronoun.
    • Neither Toody nor the other officers eat their jelly donuts on duty.
    • Use the plural pronoun their to agree with the plural antecedent officers.
    • Neither the other officers nor Toody eats his donuts on duty.
    • Use the singular pronoun his to agree with the singular antecedent Toody. Notice that the verb eats must also match.
  5. Be sure that the pronoun refers directly to the noun. Confusion occurs when the pronoun can refer to more than one antecedent. If you end up with this mish-mash, rewrite the sentence.
    • Confusing: Raul saw an ad in last week's newspaper, but he can't seem to find it.
    • What is it that Raul can't find: the ad or the newspaper?
    • Correct: Raul can't find the ad he saw in last week's newspaper.
  6. Avoid sexist language. Traditionally, the pronouns he and his were used to refer to both men and women. Not any more. The current correct usage is he and she or she and he.
    Strictly Speaking

    Many people now use the plural personal pronoun their rather than the singular personal pronouns his and her with the singular indefinite pronouns everyone and everybody, as in “Everyone take out their pepper spray.” Purists still sneer at this usage, so agree to disagree at your own peril.

    • Error: An employee should turn in his timesheet every Friday.
    • Correct: An employee should turn in his or her timesheet every Friday.
    • If the pronoun pairing necessary to avoid sexist language is cumbersome (and you better believe that it will be), try these options:
    • Recast the sentence into third person, they or them. For example: Employees should turn in their timesheets every Friday.
    • Recast the sentence into the second person, you. For example: You should turn in your timesheet every Friday.
    • Try to eliminate the pronoun altogether. For example: Turn in timesheets every Friday.
  7. Always use common sense. When the sentence doesn't seem to fit the rules and you can't figure out how to shoehorn it in, don't improvise, revise! Rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem entirely.
    • Confusing: The executive director along with the marketing vice president (was, were?) at odds over the new scheduling system.
    • Better: The executive director and the marketing vice president were at odds over the new scheduling system.
Danger, Will Robinson

Not all verbs add -s or -es when they become plural. For example words that end in -y, such as fry, change the -y to -i before adding -es. So I fry becomes he fries. Be on the lookout for the different ways that verbs form their plurals.

Nose to the Grindstone

This one should be a snap, given all the facts you've learned about agreement. In each case, choose the verb that agrees with the subject.

  • Given by the people of France to the people of the United States as a symbol of a shared love of freedom and everlasting friendship, the Statue of Liberty (1 are/is) the largest freestanding sculpture ever created. It (2 weigh/weighs) 450,000 pounds and (3 rise/rises) 151 feet above its pedestal. More than 100 feet around, Ms. Liberty (4 boast/boasts) eyes 21/2 feet wide, a mouth 3 feet wide, and a nose 41/2 feet long. Her upraised right arm (5 extend/extends) 42 feet; her hand (6 are/is) nearly 17 feet long. Her fingers (7 are/is) close to 10 feet long. The statue (8 has/have) an interior framework of iron that (9 keep/keeps) it from toppling over. Tourists and guides enjoy (10 their/his/her) time with this stirring and symbolic landmark.
Answers
1. is3. rises 5. extends 7. are 9. keeps
2. weighs 4. boasts 6. is 8. has 10. their
book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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