Improving Your Grammar

By brushing up on a few of the basic grammar rules you may have forgotten, you can remove from your writing those errors that distract and frustrate the reader.

A. Subject-Verb Agreement

A verb should always agree with its subject

  1. SUBJECT and VERB agree even when words come between them.
    The TEACHER, as well as her students, WAS pleased with the results of the test.
    The DESIGN with its intricate patterns IS especially clever. The GROUP of students IS meeting now to discuss the tuition increase.
  2. Two or more subjects joined by AND take a plural verb.
    The teacher and the students WERE pleased with the results of the test.
  3. Singular subjects joined by OR or NOR take singular verbs; plural subjects joined by OR or NOR take plural verbs.
    Neither the professor NOR her spouse WAS happy with the salary adjustment.
    Neither the students NOR their friends WERE pleased with the tuition increase.
  4. When a singular subject and a plural subject are joined by OR or NOR, the verb agrees with the subject closer to it. 
    Neither the professor nor the STUDENTS WERE happy with the results.
    Neither the students nor the PROFESSOR WAS happy with the results.
  5. Words ending in ONE, THING, or BODY (such as everyone, anyone, anything, nobody, somebody, etc.) and words (such as each, either, and neither) take singular verbs.
    Everyone involved in implementing the company’s new policies and procedures IS here.
  6. The agreement of pronouns (such as any, most, all, many, more, some, who, that, and which) depends on the countable nature of the word or phrase to which the pronoun refers. 
    Most of the sugar IS in the cup. (uncountable noun)
    Most of the apples ARE ripe. (countable noun)
  7. Collective nouns can take singular or plural verbs, depending on whether the sentence is referring to the group as a unit or as individuals. 
    The jury IS announcing its verdict. (as a unit)
    The faculty WERE in disagreement over their options. (as individuals)
  8. When a sentence begins with THERE or HERE, or when the sentence is in inverted word order, the verb still agrees with the subject, which follows the verb in these arrangements. 
    There ARE several ANSWERS to the problem. There IS one REASON for his anger.
    Driving along the highway WERE several tanker TRUCKS.

B. Pronoun-Noun Agreement

  1. A pronoun must agree in PERSON (I, he, it, they, etc.) and NUMBER (singular or plural) with the noun to which it refers. Remember that WHO and WHOM are used to refer to people, and THAT and WHICH refer to everything else. 
    Mr. Smith took HIS work home with HIM.
    Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones worked hard on their projects. Neither John nor his parents enjoyed THEIR afternoon. (The pronoun agrees with the subject closest to it – as with subject-verb agreement with or and nor [see A.4. in this handout].)
    The woman WHO voted for an increase in pay looked happy.
    The women WHO voted for an increase in pay looked happy. Each apple was chosen for ITS rosy appearance.
    Everyone must finish HIS or HER work by Friday.
    NOTE: Since frequent use of his or her could sound awkward, as in the previous example, it may be preferable to substitute plurals.
    Students must finish THEIR work by Friday.
  2. All pronouns must clearly refer to the noun they replace. 
    Our patients are enjoying the warm days while they last. (does THEY refer to patients or days?)
    While the warm days last, our patients are enjoying them.
  3. Do not mix “persons” (i.e., second person “you” with third person “he/she/it”) unless meaning requires it.
    To improve ONE'S stroke, YOU have to learn the basics.
    To improve ONE'S stroke, ONE has to learn the basics.
    To improve YOUR stroke, YOU have to learn the basics.

C. Placement of Modifiers

Always place modifiers as close as possible to the words they modify.

The supervisor told me they needed someone who could type BADLY.

The supervisor told me they badly needed someone who could type.

The fish was found by a fisherman FLOATING in the river. (who was floating?)

The fish was found floating in the river by a fisherman.

A fisherman found the fish floating in the river.

WEARING HIGH BOOTS, the snake failed to injure the supervisor. (the snake is wearing high boots)

Wearing high boots, the supervisor was protected from the snake.

Because the supervisor was wearing high boots, the snake did not injure him.

D. Use of Apostrophes

The apostrophe is used to indicate either a contraction or possession

  1. When two words are shortened into one, the apostrophe replaces the missing letter. The rule for using an apostrophe with a contraction always holds. (example:
    IT IS or IT HAS = IT'S; WHO IS or WHO HAS = WHO'S; THEY ARE = THEY'RE; WILL NOT = WON'T [note change in spelling]; IS NOT = ISN'T, etc.)
  2. When showing possession, add APOSTROPHE 'S  to the owner word.
    Then, if the word ends in a double or triple S, erase the one after the apostrophe and leave the apostrophe in place. 
    one table’s leg OR several tables’ legs
    one student’s name OR several students’ names one day’s work OR several days’ work
    one woman’s job OR several women’s jobs (note the plural form women does not use an S)
    one boss’ house OR several bosses’ houses
    NOTE: Some grammar textbooks recommend keeping the  -s’s or  -ss’s ending for words such as the Jones’s party, boss’s house, class’s work, and congress’s motion for easier pronunciation.
  3. The exception to the possessive rule is that pronouns show possession WITHOUT the use of APOSTROPHE  'S (e.g., my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, our, ours, their, theirs, its, whose, etc.).  Compare the use of apostrophes here:
    That is my book. That book is mine. (no apostrophe for the possessive pronoun mine)
    That is Bob’s book. That book is Bob’s. (apostrophe for the possessive noun Bob’s)
    Compare contractions versus possessive pronouns here:
    They’re hoping to increase their budget.
    You’re having trouble with your car.
    NOTE: To test whether to use it’s or its in a sentence, read your sentence replacing it’s with IT IS. If IT IS does not fit, the word you need is ITS. Note that there is no such word as its’  with an apostrophe following the S. 
    It’s almost time to give the cat its medication.
  4. Don’t use an apostrophe for plurals of regular nouns.
    Several students’ went to the meeting.
    The Smith’s are on vacation.
  5. Use an apostrophe for plurals of numerals, letters, and words being named. 
    He received mostly A’s on the papers marked by TA’s. All she heard were no’s in response to her proposal. EXCEPTION: Technology advanced greatly in the 1990s.