Stuff in between subjects and verbs
The stuff here is usually a prepositional phrase that separates the subject from the verb. Remember how we crossed out prepositional phrases in order to find the subject? (For a quick review, click here.) Do the same thing if you're having problems with agreement. Now, thinking about that, look at the following sentence and decide what's wrong with it:
The dishes in the kitchen is dirty.
Good guess! The subject and the verb don't agree. What's the probable cause for the problem? Kitchen (a singular noun) is right in front of is (a singular verb). If kitchen were the subject, that would be okay. But, it's not. Cross out the prepositional phrase and you're left with:
The dishes in the kitchen is dirty.
"The dishes . . . is dirty?" Sounds wrong, doesn't it? The subject is plural, but the verb is singular. They don't agree. The correct version is:
The dishes in the kitchen are dirty.
Once you know how to look for this problem, it shouldn't be too hard to get rid of it when you proofread your paper.
Reversed sentence order
The normal pattern for English sentences is subject-verb. However, there are a few situations where this order is reversed (like this sentence):
* There are snacks on the laundry-room table.
* Where are they?
* On the table are the goodies!
See how the subject comes after the verb in each of these? If you can remember how to locate subjects and verbs, you shouldn't blunder into mistakes when writing reversed-order sentences.
"-body," "-one," and "-thing" words
The correct term for these words is indefinite pronouns, but if you remember them as "-body," "-one," and "-thing" words, you'll probably be able to spot them more easily. You only need to know one thing: if a word has one of these endings (like everybody, everyone, anyone, anything, etc.), it is always singular! You can also include each, either, and neither in this group. Look at the following:
1. Everyone is going on a picnic.
2. Each of the boys is taking his own lunch.
3. If anyone drops something to eat, I'll grab it before he can pick it up.
You shouldn't have problems with these if you simply memorize the endings of words that are always singular.
NOTE: We said that either and neither are always singular; however, if you have two subjects in an either . . . or or neither . . . nor construction, getting the agreement right may give you fits. To get it right, just locate the subject closest to the verb and make the verb agree with it:
* Either the mailman or the construction workers are causing Peggy to bark like crazy.
* Neither the dogs down the street nor the one next door pays any attention.
Compare this with the following:
* Either the construction workers or the mailman is causing Peggy to bark like crazy.
* Neither the one next door nor the dogs down the street pay any attention.
Agreement, in this case, depends on the placement of the subject.
"Who," "which," and "that"
Remember dependent clauses? They have a subject and a verb, but they can't stand alone. That's what we're dealing with here, but with a little something extra. Now we've got to consider pronouns. A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun that comes before it, usually in the same clause or one very close to it.
Peggy is a troublemaker. She bites my ears and steals my food.
"Who," "which," and "that" are pronouns. When they take the place of a singular noun, they are singular; when they take the place of a plural noun, they are plural. This is important to remember when they are the subject of a clause. Compare the following sentences:
1. Big Dog is one of those animals who are very intelligent.
2. Big Dog is an animal who is very intelligent.
In both, who is the subject of a dependent clause. In number 1, it takes the place of animals (a plural form). That's why "are" is the correct verb choice. In number 2, who takes the place of animal (a singular form), and that's why "is" is correct.
This may seem a bit confusing at first, but there's a way to get it right every time. If you find "who," "which," or "that" introducing a dependent clause (like in the examples above):
1. Look at the word right in front of it (usually that's the word it takes the place of).
2. Decide if the word is singular or plural (that will tell you whether "who," "which," or "that" is singular or plural).
Subjects and objects
First let's look at case--that is, the difference between the subject and object forms of the pronouns. We know what subjects are, and objects are those words that come at the end of prepositional phrases (among other things). You probably already know the differences, but just in case, here's a list of the forms:
The only thing you need to know is that these forms can't be switched around. If the word is a subject, it must be a subject form; if it's an object . . . well, you get the idea. Consider the following:
* Peggy and me barked at the garbage truck.
* Her and me fought over the bone.
Some of you are probably thinking, "What's wrong with these?" In spoken English, you'll hear things like this every day. But in written English, you need to make sure your forms aren't mixed up. The correct versions are "Peggy and I" and "She and I," since the words are the subject of the sentence. Nothing in the object list can be a subject--ever! You wouldn't say, "Me barked" or "me fought"--unless you were trying out for a Tarzan movie.
The same goes for objects of prepositions. You can't use a subject form in a prepositional phrase.
* Big Dog fetched the paper for her and I.
* Peggy ran after John and she.
"For I"? "After she"? These can't be right, since both are in the subject list; but, they're used as objects of the preposition. The correct versions are "for me" and "after her." You shouldn't have as much trouble with these because you don't hear them misused quite as often in this way. But watch out for "just between you and I." That phrase gets a lot of use--even though "I" can't be an object. It's "just between you and me"!
With "to be" verbs
Now we get to the stuff that will sound odd to you. Remember when we talked about "to be" verb forms? (If you need a quick review, click here for a refresher.) Any time a pronoun comes after one of these verbs, the subject form is required.
* It is I.
* It was they.
* It is he.
I told you this would sound funny--but it's correct! So, all these years you've been saying, "It's me" and "It's them," and you've been wrong. Right or wrong, I can't bring myself to say, "It is I." "It's me" sounds more natural. The best thing to do when you write yourself into a construction like this is to rethink and rewrite in a different way. (If anyone tells you otherwise, just say "it was I" who told you.)
Active and passive constructions
To tell if a construction is active or passive simply look at the subject:
* If the subject is the "doer of the action," the sentence is active.
* If the subject is the "receiver of the action," the sentence is passive.
That's pretty easy. If you do something, you're active; if you have something done to you, you're passive. Compare the examples:
* Peggy ate the bone.
* Big Dog chased the police car.
* We ate every bite of food.
* The bone was eaten by Peggy.
* The police car was chased by Big Dog.
* Every bite of food was eaten by us.