Forget Disagreeing: Let's Agree to Agree

We're offering you a crash course in subject-verb agreement and pronoun agreement. Let's get started! 

To combat the grammatical errors plaguing the web today, we’ve decided to offer a free crash course on two of the most common mistakes we see: subject-verb agreement and pronoun agreement. Will this crash course make you a grammatical genius? Probably not, but it’s a step in the right direction. Ready? Let’s do this.

Warning: The examples that follow involve food. If you're hungry, you may want to grab a snack.

So what does subject-verb agreement even mean?

Well, to have “agreement” between your subjects and verbs, the subject and verb of a sentence must match in number:

The turkey smell fantastic. The subject is singular while the verb is plural. This sentence is incorrect.
The turkey smells fantastic. The subject and verb are singular.
The turkeys smell fantastic. The subject and verb are plural.

Need a trick to help you figure out how to make sure your subjects and verbs agree? We have one! More often than not, if the subject is he, she, or it, or the subject can be replaced by one of these personal pronouns, simply adding an -s to the present-tense form of the verb will make them agree.

There are three common mistakes involving subject-verb agreement: nearest-noun agreement errors; agreement with there is and there was; and agreement with compound subjects. 

Nearest-noun agreement errors mainly pop up when the subject phrase is overly complicated or long and causes the actual subject to get lost.

The price of the yummy potatoes were better than we expected. This sentence is incorrect. The subject of this sentence is price not the nearest noun potatoes. Price is a singular subject, so the verb should be singular rather than plural. The nearest noun, potatoes, is not the subject of the sentence, so the verb does not need to match it.
The price of the yummy potatoes was better than we expected. This sentence is correct! Price is singular, as is the verb was.

Agreement errors with there is and there was occur when the sentence starts with there is or there was and the subject appears after the verb.

There is usually some delicious delicacies on the table when Thanksgiving rolls around. This sentence is incorrect. The verb is singular in this sentence while the subject is plural.
There are usually some delicious delicacies on the table when Thanksgiving rolls around. This sentence is correct! The verb and subject are both plural.

The final common error of subject-verb agreements is agreement between a verb and compound subjects. A compound subject means the sentence has two or more subjects joined by the word and.

A recipe and a special ingredient is necessary for a fantastically delicious pumpkin pie. This sentence is incorrect. The verb is singular while the subject, recipe and ingredient, is compound and, therefore, plural. 
A recipe and a special ingredient are necessary for a fantastically delicious pumpkin pie. This sentence is correct! The verb is plural, matching the compound subject.

Think you’ve got a handle on subject-verb agreement? Good. Let’s move on to pronoun agreement.

In order to refer back to previously mentioned nouns, you use third-person personal pronouns (words such as their, they, he, she, him, and her). The previously mentioned nouns are known as the antecedent of the pronoun. Pronouns must agree with their antecedents in number, person, and gender.

If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun that follows must be plural, too. If the antecedent is singular, then the pronoun should be singular. If the antecedent is feminine, then the pronoun must also be feminine. If the antecedent is a singular noun without gender but refers to a person — think nouns such as teacher — you should use him or her. If the antecedent is an event or thing, then you use a form of the pronoun it.

Are you still with us? Let’s look at some examples to clarify things a bit.

A good host prepares enough food for all of their guests. This sentence is incorrect. The antecedent host is a singular noun while the pronoun their is plural.
A good host prepares enough food for all of his or her guests. This sentence is correct! The antecedent host is a singular noun representing a person and doesn’t specify gender. His or her refers to a singular antecedent (check!) and provides options for either gender (check!).

Need an easy way to help you identify pronoun-agreement errors?  Here’s a hint: Most of these errors involve the plural pronouns them, they, or their when referring to singular antecedents. If you use these pronouns, check to see if your antecedent is plural by putting the word are after the antecedent. If are doesn’t sound quite right after the antecedent, then the antecedent is singular and has an agreement error with the plural pronouns. To fix the error, you can make the antecedent plural, change the plural pronoun to a version of the singular pronouns he or she, or reword the sentence entirely to get rid of the pronoun.

WHEW! That definitely was a crash course. Since you made it to this point, that means our course didn’t crash and burn—and neither did you. Congratulations! 

Running On... The Problem with Run Ons

Why is running on--in sentences--such a big deal? 

In Ellen Bryant Voigt's The Art of Syntax, she discusses how the way we compose our sentences is directly related to the way we think. So, if you've got a lot of run on sentences in your writing, your brain is jamming all of your thoughts together. And that makes it really hard for your reader to understand what you're trying to say. 

What are run on or fused sentences? 

Run on (a.k.a. fused sentences) sentences happen when you connect two independent clauses with just a coordinating conjunction. When you connect two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction, you have to put a comma before the coordinating conjunction. 

Wait. What? 

An independent clause is a phrase that contains a subject and predicate. In other words, it could be a sentence all by itself. For example,

I like to eat ramen noodles

is an independent clause. 

A coordinating conjunction is a short word that shows the relationship between two things. I use FANBOYS to remember them: 

F - For

A - And

N - Nor

B - But

O - Or

Y - Yet

S - So. 

So, if you connect two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction, you have to put a comma before the coordinating conjunction. 

How do I fix run on sentences? 

Right. Put a comma before the conjunction. 

For example, if you want to connect "I like to eat ramen noodles" and "I eat them for lunch everyday," you would need to put a comma before the and. Like this: 

I like to eat ramen noodles, and I eat them for lunch everyday.

Does that make sense? Add your questions to the comment section! 

Did I Lose You? Transitioning Between Paragraphs

Transition sentences connect two ideas to each other for your reader. Usually they occur between two body paragraphs. 

Essentially, you can’t just jump from one paragraph to the next and expect your reader to keep up. Instead, like jumping from one side of a river to the other, you need a bridge, or at least a rope. 

I created a really simple example below, taking the italicized paragraphs out of context from National Geographic Online. 

Thesis Statement: My three favorite animals are the Baltimore oriole, the sea cucumber, and the sloth because they all have unique characteristics. 

Now I need to move from my three favorite animals to the Baltimore oriole, the first one I'm going to discuss. But to make this easy for my readers' brains, I'm going to use some of the same language to bridge those ideas.

Transition Phrase + Topic: Because it is so unique, the Baltimore oriole is even... 

...Maryland's official state bird. This popular animal has also been the namesake of the state's professional baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles, since the late 19th century. Male orioles have brilliant orange-golden underparts and shoulder patches, with black wings and a black head. Females are not as brightly colored. Though they are partially orange, they also have and brownish-olive plumage. 

Concluding Sentence: The Baltimore orioles popularity and color are just two of the traits that make it unique.  

Transition Phrase + Topic Sentence: Sea cucumbers also have a lot of unique traits. 

Notice how I moved from Baltimore orioles to sea cucumbers from repeating the words "unique" and "traits." As your writing becomes more advanced, you incorporate more synonyms, instead of just repeating the same language. 

Sea cucumbers are echinoderms—like starfish and sea urchins. There are some 1,250 known species, and many of these animals are indeed shaped like soft-bodied cucumbers. All sea cucumbers are ocean dwellers, though some inhabit the shallows and others live in the deep ocean. They live on or near the ocean floor—sometimes partially buried beneath it.

Concluding Sentence: While there are a lot of species of sea cucumbers, the most interesting traits are what they look like, where they live, and how they move. 

Transitional Phrase + Topic Sentence: Another animal that is interesting because of what it looks like, where it lives, and how it moves is the sloth. 

Notice that this time my transitional phrase was a little more complicated? That's okay; just make sure your reader is able to cross the bridge between your ideas. 

The sloth is the world's slowest mammal, so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat. The plant gives it a greenish tint that is useful camouflage in the trees of its Central and South American rain forest home. Sloths are identified by the number of long, prominent claws that they have on each front foot. There are both two-toed and three-toed sloths.

Concluding/Transition Sentence: These are the traits that make a sloth very interesting. 

Transitional/Topic Sentence for Conclusion: In fact, there are many interesting animals, but I have three favorites. 

Restate Thesis: My three favorite animals are the Baltimore oriole, the sea cucumber, and the sloth because they all have unique characteristics.

Starting to get the hang of it? 

Keep in mind that transition sentences connect two ideas to each other for your reader. And always, feel free to submit your essay to us if you have any questions! 




Where's Your Thesis Statement?

I know. You hear thesis statement, and your brain goes to mush.

It shouldn’t. Thesis statements are tricky, until you get the hang of them, but you can develop them fairly easily with our thesis statement process.

The Purpose of a Thesis Statement

The purpose of a thesis statement is to tell the reader what your essay is going to be about. More precisely, the thesis statement should give the reader an idea of the scope (what), the purpose (why), and the direction (how) of the paper.

How to Write A Thesis Statement – The Grammar Bomb Process

The best way to start out is to start out with a simple statement, and then slowly develop and refine it.

  • Topic + What You’re Going To Say About It

Let’s say your paper is about climate change, and you’re going to discuss the effects of a two degrees Celsius increase in the average temperature of Earth. Obviously, this is a very complex topic, so you want to be specific about the scope of your essay. You might start out with a sentence like this:

  • If the Earth’s temperature increases by two degrees Celsius, there will be catastrophic effects.

That’s great, but it’s still too broad. You could spend your life researching this. (In fact, lots of people do.) To narrow it down, add some specifics.

  • If the Earth’s temperature increases by two degrees Celsius, there will be catastrophic effects; three of those effects are the melting of the ice caps, changes in weather patterns, and shifts in animal and plant ranges.

This is great, and it reigns in the scope of the essay. Obviously, now you’re not going to talk about climate change in general, but only the instance in which the Earth’s temperature rises two degrees, and you’re not going to talk about ALL of the effects of climate change, but just these three. The only thing that’s missing is why your reader should read this.

  • College students are in a unique position to inspire change if they understand just these three effects of Earth’s temperature increasing by two degrees Celsius: the melting of the ice caps, changes in weather patterns, and shifts in animal and plant ranges.

Now if you’re in a college class, it’s really clear to your peers why they should read your essay. Even if the body of your essay is spent describing the melting of the ice caps, changes in weather patterns, and shifts in animal and plant ranges, you should come back to why college students are in a unique position to inspire change in your second to last paragraph or even your conclusion. 

How to Develop a Thesis Statement for Advanced College Classes

In college classes, often the best way to develop a thesis is to start with a working thesis (see the simplest example above), and make sure that it clearly responses to the prompt given to you by your instructor. Also, as your writing progresses, the importance of your paper (or why your audience should read it) becomes more and more important.

And check with your professor. Most professors prefer you thesis be the last sentence or two of your introduction. Some professors prefer listing your main points in the thesis statement to give an idea of the organization of the paper, and other don’t want those points listed all but alluded to earlier.

Remember: your paper has to have a thesis statement. Hopefully our process can help!

It's All About the Process

People often have strange impressions about successful writers.

Think about it yourself. When you imagine a writer, do you think about somebody sitting in front of a computer just pounding out words because they just have that much to say? Do you think of writers as somehow magical, as people who can conjure words at a moment’s notice and generate fluent prose that just somehow captures the minds and hearts of others? Do you have an image of the lone writer locked in his or her dark study letting the inspiration flow from their fingertips?

If you have some of these images of successful writers, you’re not alone. Many people still believe that writing is the product of an innate genius that some people “have” and some people don’t. Of course this idea is partly true, that some of us are more skilled at writing or math or music or running than others. But what everybody who succeeds in any pursuit shares is the drive to work hard.

There are no professional athletes who just showed up for a race or a game one day having never played. There are no professional musicians who just walked onto a stage and played Rachmaninoff. There are no writers who simply sat down in front of a keyboard and delivered beautiful prose. All of these people practiced, developed techniques, improved their techniques, and practiced more, and then one day, the work of thousands of hours of preparation paid off: they made it look easy.

Many people have talked about “writing processes,” and an equal number have developed their own idea on what this process is. But in reality, all of the thousands of different variations break down into roughly a four-part structure: defining what you’re doing; preparing to do it; actually doing it; and completing it.

We call these, obviously, the Definition Stage, the Preparation Stage, the Writing Stage, and the Completion Stage. If writers learn nothing other than to think of their process in stages like this, they will have come a long way from thinking that writing is magic that some people can do and some people cannot. Thinking about writing in this way also makes writing far less daunting because it divides the work into manageable chunks that can be completed at different times rather than thinking that you must sit down at a computer one day and just “get it done.” It requires work to master this process, but like any process that you have internalized, the writing process becomes second nature, and consequently, every time you write it’s just a little bit easier, assuming you’re implementing the correct process and not developing bad habits.

Remember that writing isn’t magic. There are some individuals who make it look like magic, but in 99 out of 100 cases, effective writers have consciously worked through a process that structured their work. They have repeated the process enough times that it begins to look easy; they have sought the guidance of coaches to help them improve; they have honestly reflected on their processes and creations so that they can improve.