Monday, June 15, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Subject-Verb Agreement

In the throes of a particularly gripping surge of creative genius, even the tidiest writer may glance over the basic principle of subject-verb agreement. That is, "The number of a verb must agree with the number of the noun or pronoun used with it" (The Chicago Manual of Style, 5.123) or as Amy Einsohn states, "A singular subject takes a singular verb, and a plural subject takes a plural verb" (The Copyeditor's Handbook, p. 339).

Singular: Her shoe is sparkly.
Plural: Her shoes are sparkly.

Easy enough? Of course, not quite. Einsohn lists no less than twenty-five subject-verb agreement hang-ups. For instance, number twenty-three: "Titles of works. Titles of works always take a singular verb. {Dickinson's Selected Poems is a fine introduction to her work.}"

In addition to Einsohn's litany, The Elements of Style (p.9-11) is a handy go-to for the most common difficulties. True to succinct Strunk and White style, the section gets right to straightening us out:

"Words that intervene between subject and verb do not affect the number of the verb. [Incorrect] The bittersweet flavor of youth--its trials, its joys, its adventures, its challenges--are not soon forgotten. [Correct] The bittersweet flavor of youth--its trials, its joys, its adventures, its challenges--is not soon forgotten."

While the native English speaker will find many of the principles governing subject-verb agreement to be intuitive, mastering subject-verb agreement does require memorizing some rules and familiarizing oneself with resources for the obscure configurations.

In addition to the sources listed above, check out Grammar Girl's typically humorous take (with help from another grammar guru, Bonnie Trenga) on subject-verb agreement, here.

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