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Writing with Clarity and Style

Use this online writing lesson for Grade 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 elementary, middle school and high school students and teachers to learn and understand how to write with clarity and style and obeying the rules of English grammar.


Subject and Verb Agreement by Number

A verb and its subject are of the same number. The rule for number agreement is not difficult. A singular subject requires a singular verb; a plural subject requires a plural verb. To apply the rule, however, you must be able to do three tings: Remember that the subject controls the verb form -- do not be distracted by other structures that may stand close to the verb; be able to determine the number of the subject; and finally, know the correct singular and plural forms of the verb.

Subject Controls Number of Verb Form

In the sentence One of our ships is missing there is a temptation to let the plural noun ships, which stands by the verb, control the verb form because ships is sounds peculiar. The temptation must be resisted, for it is the more remote word one, the subject of the verb, that controls the number of the verb. There are several circumstances in which another structure may distract the writer from remembering that the subject controls the number of the verb form.

The verb agrees with the subject, not with the elements in the modifier of the subject.

          Each of the sofas is ninety inches long.

          A swarm of bees is coming toward us.

The verb agrees with the subject, not with the following complement.

          The greatest nuisance is the refunds that we have to make.

          The children of today are the hope of tomorrow. [The complement nouns refunds and hope do not control the verb form. To do so, they must be moved into the subject position of the sentence to become the subjects of their sentences: The hope of tomorrow is the children of today.

If for any reason the subject is moved out of the subject position, it will still control the verb form as long as another nominal is not moved into its place.

          Ramon and Eduardo are at the jai alai game.

          Where are Ramon and Eduardo? [The sentence has been transformed into a question, and Ramon and Eduardo is still the subject of the sentence.]

There is one exception to the rule. The word it can also function as an expletive displacing the subject of the sentence. However, because it is also a singular pronoun, it controls the verb even if the subject is plural. usually the subject displaced by it is obviously singular so that it doesn't really matter what controls the singular verb form.

          It is rumored that he is about to resign.

Number of Noun Subject Controls Verb Form

Most problems in subject-verb agreement occur because the number of the noun or nouns functioning as the subject is not always apparent. The fish can be singular or plural despite its singular form. The news is always singular despite its plural form.

Some nouns in the plural form can be singular in meaning, or they can be plural in meaning.

Trousers, tongs, wages, tactics, pliers, scissors, odds and barracks are plural in meaning. Therefore they require a singular verb.

          The scissors are in the lefthand drawer.

Billiards, news, mathematics, linguistics, mumps, and measles are singular in meaning. Therefore they require a singular verb.

          Measles is a communicable disease.

Some nouns in the plural form can be both singular and plural, although in most uses they are plural. Compare:

          Politics has always attracted persons of talent.

          The politics of the situation are complicated.

Some nouns that specify an amount of something are singular when the things or people involved are regarded as a unit. In this case, they take a singular verb.

          Two plus two is four.

          Eight pounds of grapes seems a lot.

          Ten percent of their capital has been absorbed already.

          Ten percent of the men drafted are over thirty [Here the men are regarded as individuals, not as a unit.]

Collective nouns are usually singular but can be plural. If the collective is regarded as a unit, the collective noun is singular and requires a singular verb.

          The orchestra performs well under any conductor.

          The family is coming over this afternoon.

If, however,members of the collective are considered individually, the collective noun is plural and requires a plural verb.

          The family were informed as soon as they could be reached by telephone. [Members of the family were informed individually by means of several telephone calls.]

Number of Compound Subject Controls Verb Form

A compound subject coordinated by and is nearly always plural and requires a plural verb form.

          Mink and sable are expensive furs

          The senator and his wife were warmly received.

If, however, the compound subject refers to just one person or thing, then the verb form is singular.

          A scholar and a gentleman is what he strives to be.

When the compound subject refers closely related things, it can be singular or plural depending on the closeness of the relationship. In borderline cases, the singular form of the following verb sounds better.

          The courage and patriotism of de Gaulle were cherished by many Frenchmen in 1940. [The two qualities are related but distinct from each other; so the plural verb form is used.]

          The protection and feeding of young fledglings is the constant preoccupation of the adult birds. [The two qualities seem so close that the singular verb form is used.]

Singular nouns coordinated by or, either. . . or, neither . . . nor, or by not only . . . but also are regarded as a singular subject and a singular verb form.

          Not only the mother but also the child was badly dehydrated.

          Either the muffler or the tailpipe was replaced.

          Neither time nor prosperity has softened his heart.

When these coordinating conjunction join plural nouns, the verb is plural. (Neither the Saints or the Packer are going to win this year.) When these conjunctions joint singular and plural nouns, then the verb agrees in number with the closer noun to it.

          Neither his advisors nor the President himself has acted wisely in this crisis. [President is closer to the verb]

Number of Pronoun Subject Controls Verb Form

Most indefinite pronouns are regarded as singular pronouns and require a singular verb form.

          Somebody across the stress is playing a trombone.

          As yet nobody has challenged my theory.

          Each of the sofas is over ninety inches long.

          Everybody in the room was getting sleepy.

Some of these indefinite pronouns can work as determiners before singular nouns, and although there may be a strong feeling that more than one thing is involved, the verb form is still singular.

          Neither idea was any good.

          Each baby chick was inspected to establish its sex.

A few indefinite pronouns such as many, several, and few refer to more than one person or thing. These pronouns are plural and take plural verb forms.

          Several have already been tested.

          Many are called, but few are chosen.

The nouns variety and number also take plural verb forms when they are preceded by a. When they are preceded by the, they are singular.

          A number of horsemen were on the hill.

          The number of horsemen on the hill was not great.

Like collective nouns, some indefinite pronouns can be either singular or plural depending on whether they refer to a quantity or individual units of something.

          Some of the cereal is wormy.

          Some of the apples are rotten.

          Most of the money is gone; so are most of the people. [A quantity of money and several people have disappeared.]

The pronoun none behaves in a similar fashion; in addition it can be singular when the meaning of not one of the individuals is intended.

          Luckily, none of the property was damaged; none of the horses were hurt; but none of us is blameless in this matter.

A relative pronoun can be either singular or plural, depending on the number of its antecedent. Sometimes the antecedent is not easy to find.

          She is one of those courageous women who have sacrificed their lives for woman's rights. [Who can refer in general for its meaning to she, one or women. Specifically, it refers to the plural women. Therefore the verb that the pronoun who controls is plural.

Pronoun and Antecedent Agreement

As was pointed out, a pronoun is a word that sometimes lacks specific meaning. Most pronouns depend on another structure for their meaning. the other structure, the antecedent, controls the pronoun with regard to number, person, gender, and the lexical features of people and things. Some of the pronouns controlled by their antecedents are the personal, demonstrative, and relative pronouns.

Number of Antecedent

Collective nouns can be singular or plural depending on whether the collective or the several individuals involved are emphasized. The following pronouns are singular or plural accordingly.

          The staff express its confidence in its medical director. [The staff acted collectively.]

          The staff have been airing their grievances publicly. [Individual staff members had been complaining.]

Indefinite pronouns are usually singular but can be plural depending on whether a quantity or individual units are emphasized. The following pronoun is singular or plural accordingly.

          Some of the cereal has kept its freshness, but some of the apples have worms in their cores. [The cereal is in quantity, the apples in individual units.] A compound subject is singular when the coordinator is or and plural when the coordinator is and.

A compound subject is singular when the coordinator is or and plural when the coordinator is and.

          The senator and his wife were warmly received after their world tour.

          Either Vincente or Martin may leave his children with us.

When one of the antecedents joined by or or nor is plural, the pronoun agrees in number with the closer antecedent.

          Neither the producer nor the sponsors admit they were aware of the fraudulent practices.

          Neither the sponsors nor the producer admits that he was aware of the fraudulent practices.

When the antecedent of the pronoun is a large structure like a sentence, the following pronoun is always singular.

          Lumsden tried to calm the child's fears. He found this more difficult that he had expected.

Person and Gender of Antecedent

As nearly all noun and pronoun antecedents are third person, there is seldom any problem in selecting the correct pronoun to follow them. Mr. Riggs said that he would accept the chairmanship.

As far as gender is concerned, English bases gender on sexual differences, whereas other European language use arbitrary gender distinctions in which football is masculine, television is feminine, and a girl can be neuter. In English, a masculine pronoun follows a male antecedent; a feminine pronoun follows a female antecedent; and a neuter pronoun follows nearly all other antecedents. Thus a girl is she, an uncle is he, and a comb is it.

Traditionally, masculine pronouns have been used to refer to abstract, singular nouns like mayor, judge, professor, doctor, senator, employer, person, and reader:

          A judge must use his discretion in such a matter.

Since, today, women have assumed larger roles in many formerly masculine fields, the problem of sexist language arises. It can be solved in several ways:

1) by using both third person singular pronouns:

A judge must use his or her discretion in such a matter.

2) by using plural forms o avoid the singular human noun:

Judges must use their discretion in such matters.

3) by the sparing use of you:

Once the writer has determined his purpose . . .

Once you have determined your purpose . . .

4) by revising the sentence:

The worker should divide his task . . .

The task should be divided . . .

Human or Nonhuman Antecedent

It and its are the pronouns used when the antecedent is nonhuman. However, animals whose sex is significant or who are well-known to the speaker can be called he or she, which are the pronouns used for antecedents that are human.

The relative pronouns who, whom, that refer to antecedents that are human (or are familiar animals); which, that refer to antecedents that are nonhuman.

He is one of those who know all too well that the memories that move us fade all too fast. [Those is the human antecedent of who; memories is the nonhuman antecedent of that.]

Faulty Pronoun Reference

Pronouns lack specific meaning and must have antecedents to give them this meaning. Like dangling modifiers, pronouns can cause confusion if it is not clear to what they are referring. The correction of faulty pronoun reference depends on what kind of fault is involved.

Omission of Antecedent

When the antecedent of a pronoun is omitted, the faulty reference can be correct by putting the antecedent back into its sentence; by substituting the antecedent for the pronoun; or by rewriting the sentence or sentences.

Instead of setting a total fee, the orthodontist charged twenty dollars a month until the work was completed, which the dental profession considers unethical.

Instead of setting a total fee, the orthodontist charged twenty dollars a month until the work was completed, an arrangement that the dental profession considers unethical. [antecedent an arrangement stated explicitly]

My father wants me to be a doctor, but this is a profession that does not appeal to me.

My father wants me to be a doctor, but medicine is a profession that does not appeal to me. [antecedent medicine replacing its pronoun]

Separation of Antecedent and Pronoun

If a pronoun is too widely separated from its antecedent, the reference of the pronoun may be obscured. This kind of obscurity can be corrected by substituting the antecedent for the pronoun.

While bathing in the surf at Malibu Beach, he was knocked down and almost drowned. It was too strong for him.

While bathing in the surf at Malibu Beach, he was knocked down and almost drowned. The surf was too strong for him.

Anticipating Reference

Anticipatory reference is a word order situation in which the pronoun in a dependent clause comes before its antecedent in the independent clause. If the sentence is short, the result is acceptable: When I received it, the shirt was stained. In longer sentences, however, the reader may be kept uninformed too long about the meaning of the pronoun.

If they are washed gently with warm water and a mild detergent and are then wrapped in a soft, absorbent cloth and left to dry, these orlon garments will retain their original shape and texture.

If these orlon garments are washed . . . . they will retain . . .

Errors of Agreement

An antecedent's control of the form of its pronoun is a strong connecting device inside and outside the sentence. If errors of agreement occur, the connection between the antecedent and its pronoun is blurred. The reader knows what is meant, but his or her sense of form is offended.

YOU must keep your silverware out of the salty air; they will tarnish if you don't.

YOU must keep your silverware out of the salty air; it will tarnish if you don't. [Silverware is a singular collective noun.]


Case denotes the relation of nouns and pronouns to other words in the sentence. There are three relationships or cases:

Nominative Case

The nominative case indicates that the noun or pronoun is used as the subject of a verb, as an appositive to a subject noun, or as a predicate noun.

          Mary plays the piano. [nominative case, subject of the verb.]

          The younger girl, Mary, plays the piano. [Mary is the nominative case as the appositive to girl.]

          The girl playing the piano is Mary. [Mary is the nominative case because it is a predicate noun used after the copulative verb is to refer to girl.]

Subject of Verb in Nominative Case

          John is growing taller.

          He was born in Vernal, Colorado.

          They are studying nuclear physics.

Predicate Noun or Pronoun in Nominative Case.

The predicate noun or pronoun stands for the same person or thing as the subject and renames it. Therefore, the predicate noun or pronoun is in the same case as the subject, the nominative case.

          Mr. Dill is a sexton.

          They thought that the thief was I.

Appositive of a Subject in Nominative Case.

          Mr. Daly, my neighbor, is a probation officer.

          The sponsors, we who are present here, must sign the petition.

Objective Case

The objective case indicates that the noun or pronoun receives the action of the verb or the verbal, or that it is the object of a preposition. Nouns and pronouns indicate case either by their position in the sentence or by their form. Nouns retain the same form in the nominative and objective cases, but change form to indicate the possessive case; Mary's.

Object of a Verb in Objective Case.

          He blew the whistle.

          We thanked him for his kindness.

          He taught her Greek.

Object of Verbal in Objective Case.

          Smelling the coffee, I jumped out of bed. [Coffee is the object of the participle smelling.]

Subject of Infinitive in Objective Case.

          We hired her to demonstrate our products. [Her is the subject of the infinitive to demonstrate.]

Object of Preposition in Objective Case

          Grandmother's linens will be divided between you and me. [You and me are objects of the preposition between.]

          We will divide the spoils among us. [Us is the object of the preposition among.]

Relative Pronouns: Put the relative pronoun who or whom in the case demanded by its use in the clause to which it belongs.

          Livingston was the man who was sent to find Stanley. [Who introduces the dependent clause and is in the nominative case because it is the subject of the verb was sent.]

          Who do you suppose gave him our address? [ Who is the subject of gave, not the object of the parenthetical clause do you suppose.]

          Whom were they talking about? [Whom is the object of the preposition about.]

          Help whoever deserves help. [Whoever is the subject of the verb deserves and is therefore in the nominative case.]

Possessive Case

The possessive case usually indicates possession.

          I tuned Mary's piano.

Put nouns and pronouns in the possessive case when they are used to show the following:


          Carol's store


          China's apologist [apologists who represent China]

The performer of an act:

          Houdini's escape

Time, measurement, weight:

          a day's wages [the wages earned in a day]

          a hair's breadth [the width of a hair]

Put a noun or pronoun in the possessive case when it immediately precedes a gerund.

          Whenever she thinks of Henry's leaving, she begins to cry.

          I will not take the blame for somebody's pilfering.

Dangling Modifiers

A dangling modifier is a dependent structure that is related to the wrong word in the sentence. It is usually caused by the writer's starting a construction and forgetting where he or she is going. As a result, the sentence is momentarily misleading and often ludicrous.

          Coming around the bend in the bend in the road, the church was seen.

In the preceding sentence, the church seems to be coming around the bend, an unusual occupation for an ecclesiastical building. The error is caused by the writer's chopping from the sentence the person who did both the seeing and the coming. The sentence can be repaired by including that person.

          Coming around the bend in the road, he saw the church.

Dangling Modifiers - With Verbals

Most dangling modifiers involve verbals. One way of "undangling" these modifiers is to determine who or what is involved in the action and then make sure that this person or thing is in the sentence and that the modifier stands close to it. Looking through his field glasses, the bird flew away.

          Looking through his field glasses, he saw the bird fly away.

In some instances, the structure that should be modified is in the sentence, but the modifier, by its position, seems to modify something else.

          To provide maximum coverage, you must have a comprehensive policy.

          To provide maximum coverage, a policy must be comprehensive.

Dangling Modifiers - With Prepositional Phrases and Verbals

Verbals embedded inside prepositional phrases can sometimes relate to the wrong structure. Before baking a cake, the hands should be washed. Inside the prepositional phrase that functions as a verb modifier, the verbal is related to the wrong structure, the hands.

          Before you bake a cake, you should wash your hands.

Dangling Modifiers - With Elliptical Clauses

Elliptical clauses are clauses from which words have been deleted: When eight years old, her father began to teach her Greek.

The dangling modifier can be corrected by expanding the clause to recover the deleted words. When she was eight years old, her father began to teach her Greek.

Misplaced Modifiers

Because word order in English is very important to the functioning of structures, a modifier that gets out of position can cause confusion. A misplaced modifier usually gets that way because too often w write things down in the order in which they enter our minds. Our minds being what they are, the resulting disorder can produce alarming results. For Sale: 1693 Volkswagen by elderly gentleman recently rebored and new battery installed. Obviously, it is the Volkswagen and not the elderly gentleman which has been modified by the reboring and battery installation. The solution, then, is to reorder the sentence so that the modifiers clearly modify the right structure.

Misplaced Verb Modifiers

Most verb modifiers can move with some freedom around a sentence. This freedom can too easily become confusion because a verb modifier can attach itself to the wrong verb or noun. The solution is to bring it back close to its verb.

Jack threatened to divorce her often.

Jack often threatened to divorce her.

Misplaced Noun Modifiers

Noun modifiers have fixed positions before and after the noun. If for any reason the are dislodged from their correct positions, confusion and ambiguity result. The sentence must to rearranged to get the noun modifier back into its correct position, or the sentence must be recast.

He finally got rid of his hiccups by holding his breath, which had lasted an hour.

By holding his breath he finally got rid of his hiccups, which had lasted an hour.

Noun modifiers that are prepositional phrases can give particular trouble because if they are misplaced, they not only can refer to other nouns but they also can become verb modifiers on the spot.

Double Reference Modifiers

Some structures are so placed that they can refer to the structure before or the structure after them. These squinting modifiers are sometimes completely ambiguous. The use of punctuation to separate the modifier from one of the structures sometimes helps, but it is better to move the squinting modifier to a position from which it looks in one direction only.

The doctor said that if my aunt did not move to a warmer climate within a year she would be dead. [Must she move within a year, or will she be dead within a year?]

The doctor said that if my aunt did not move to a warmer climate she would be dead within a year.

Misplaced Common Adverbs

In colloquial speech, adverbs like only, almost, merely, scarcely, just and even are often misplaced without unduly confusing the listener. Luigi only had 20 with him at the time is clear in its meaning. In formal writing, however, the adverbs should be placed next to the structures they modify. Luigi had only $20 . . . .

He merely asked the question because he was curious.

He asked the question merely because he was curious.

Faulty Phrase Compounding

Faulty phrase compounding is the careless or too enthusiastic compounding of phrases. Because compounded phrases can be vague or ambiguous and because new compound are invented all the time by product packagers and others, great care must be exercised in using the essential but often uncontrollable structures.

Below is a list of compounded noun and adjective phrases ranging from those long accepted to those that definitely are to be avoided. Note that the hyphen is used frequently in these compounds. When you are compounding, it is wise to have a good modern dictionary on hand.

Long-accepted, usable noun-phrase-adjective-phrase compounds

          roadside cafe          The cafe sits beside a road.

          waterproof          Something is impervious to water.

          baby-sitter          Someone who sits with or looks after a baby

          fly-by-night          The operation has a temporary operation unreliable character.

Acceptable, recently coined noun-phrase/adjective-phrase compounds

          dropout          Someone has dropped out of school or out of organized society.

          hang-up          Something has irritated or inhibited someone so that he has become tense.

          war-related          Something is related to an activity connected with war-making.

          full automated, disk-orientated computer system          A system of machines that can compute automatically is oriented to a computer disk.system

Split Constructions

Because word order is so vital to English, the words of a particular structure should stand together. For emphasis or clarity, a good writer alters the expected flow of words and structures. However, the pointless separation of words within a structure or of closely related structures may cause awkwardness or obscurity. When separation produces either of these effects, the writer should change the order of the words or revise the sentence.

Pointless Separations

The basic elements of a structure, such as preposition and object or auxiliary verb and main verb, can at times be separated by short intruders like at times, but the integrity of the structure is threatened by larger interruptions.

The verb phrase:

          There stands the house that I will, within five years, purchase and remodel.

          There stands the house that I will purchase and remodel within five years.

The noun phrase

          She's a talented, and here I must point out that I have good qualifications to make such a judgment, intelligent person.

          She is a talented person, and because I think that my qualifications are good enough to make such a judgment, I would add further that she is also an intelligent person.

          The infinitive with to:

          I hope that you will be able to satisfactorily repair my television set within a week.

          I hope that you will be able to repair my television set satisfactorily within a week.

The prepositional phrase:

          He pawed through every garment on the bargain counter, looking for, in that welter, a short-sleeved shirt.

          In the welter of the bargain counter, he pawed through every garment, looking for a short-sleeved shirt.

Mixed Constructions

In speaking, we sometimes start one structure, slide to another structure, forget the first structure, and start all over again. A written court transcript of testimony given under some pressure makes the point well.

When I got to the door, and just as I was going down the steps, it was about seven thirty I think, well maybe seven thirty-five, I don't tell time too well, anyway I was going to get my car fixed and I saw this man coming up to me, he was about my height and he asked me where Seventh Street was, I think he was wearing a rain . . .

The initial adverb clauses have long been forgotten as the witness, groping for continuity, continues to mix up his constructions.

In writing, we usually have the chance to rewrite and the mixed constructions should be tracked down and eliminated.

          I told him to invest in mutual funds if he can.

          I told him, "Invest in mutual funds if you can.

          I told him to invest in mutual funds if he could.

Faulty Comparison

Mistakes are made in writing comparisons because the meanings of the comparative and superlative forms of the adjective pose problems and because elements of a comparison may be wrongly omitted.

Omission of Elements

A comparison is nearly always shortened by the deletion of repeated elements. She is more beautiful than her sister (is) (beautiful). Sometimes the omission of elements from the second half of a comparison can be done baldly so that the reader is confused by the ambiguity involved.

          Carla ranks Cole Porter higher than Carla ranks Barry Manilow.

          Carla ranks Cole Porter higher than Barry Manilow. [Manilow has become an evaluator of Cole Porter.]

          Carla ranks Cole Porter higher than she ranks Barry Manilow.

Comparison Omission

Comparisons should not be approximate. Things being compared should be stated precisely. In the following examples, fuzzy comparisons are made between states and mountains and between filters and cigarettes.

          The mountains in Vermont are lower and greener than New Hampshire.

          The mountains in Vermont are lower and greener than the mountains in New Hampshire.

Both as and than are involved when a comparison is made twice.

          In the ring, Tag Martin is as ferocious as, if not more ferocious than, Jack Dempsey was.

Because the structure looks formidable, a writer will often omit the first comparison word as.

          In the ring, Tag Martin is as ferocious, if not more ferocious than Jack Dempsey was.

The easiest correction is to avoid the structure altogether and write something with roughly the same meaning.

          In the ring, Tag Martin is at least as ferocious as Jack Dempsey.

Comparative and Superlative Forms

The rule is that the comparative form refers to two things; the superlative form refers to more than two things.

The meaning of the comparative form of the adjective, in which an individual is singled out to be compared to other members of its group, is made explicit by the use of the word other. If this word is omitted the result can be confusing.

          Alaska is bigger than any state in the union. [This comparison implies that Alaska is not a state in the union.]

          Alaska is bigger than any other state in the union.

The superlative form of the adjective is used when an individual is included within the members of the group being compared to the individual. When the individual is included in the group, the excluding word other should not be used.

          Charlie is the oldest of all the other boys in the class. [All includes Charles; other excludes Charlie.]

          Charlie is the oldest of all the boys in the class.

Omission of Necessary Words

If structures are not unduly separated and each structure is well constructed, writers frequently delete words when they feel confident that the construction of the parts of a sentence is clear; when assembling the case for the clock. We know that words like you are have been omitted.

We are expected to fill in the gaps and we do (fill in the gaps). In He had been tried and judges already, we supply the had been for the second verb.

Because the deletion of words can cause awkwardness and misunderstanding, care must be taken in handling deletions. Below are listed some of many situations in which it is wise not to delete words from their structures.

          When he appeared for the hearing, he was accompanied by a friend and advisor. [one or two people?]

          When he appeared for the hearing he was accompanied by a friend and an advisor. [two people]

          He has never expressed trust or loyalty to anyone.

          He has never expressed trust in or loyalty to anyone.

          He had laughed and been reprimanded for his action.

          He had laughed and had been reprimanded for his action.


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