Everything English

Writing and Grammar Tips (beta)


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Category : Common Mistakes

Don’t Slip up with Possessive Pronouns

Be careful not to use plural verb tenses and plural possessive pronouns with singular nouns. This can be tricky, especially when the nouns in question refer to entities (e.g. companies, governments) that contain a lot of people. You might think that because the people define the entities (there would be no governments or companies without their employees) that the entities should be used with plural verbs and pronouns. But watch out!

  • Right: The government’s attitude toward its people was typically positive.
  • Wrong: The government’s attitude toward their people was typically positive.

“The government” is an entity (a “thing”) that requires singular verb forms and singular possessive pronouns. Why not plural verbs or pronouns? Because a government may have many employees, ministers, etc., but it is seen as containing these people. Such people, in essence, “belong” to their governments, much as athletes “belong” to sports teams. As a group, they are defined by their common membership in a single institution, and this institution’s singular identity takes precedent over the individual identities of its members.

Several other examples:

  • Right: The team loses every home game it plays.
  • Wrong: The team lose every home game they play.
  • Right: If the company goes bankrupt, it will have no option but to vacate the premises and auction off its equipment.
  • Wrong: If the company goes bankrupt, they will have no option but to vacate the premises and auction off their equipment.
  • Right: The hospital staff is composed of a set of physicians and nurses.
  • Wrong: The hospital staff are composed of a set of physicians and nurses.

In the latter example, we’re speaking of “hospital staff” as a single entity – a “body” (or group) of people that includes physicians and nurses. Single entities require verbs in singular tenses. The phrasing “hospital staff are” is incorrect because “are” is the present plural form of the verb “to be”.

BUT

  • Right: Hospital staff are required to wear uniforms at all times.
  • Wrong: Hospital staff is required to wear uniforms at all times.

Here, it wouldn’t make sense to say “hospital staff is required to wear uniforms.” Were we use to this phraseology, we would be suggesting that the group “hospital staff”, as a whole and as an abstract, single entity, is required to wear uniforms. “Hospital staff are required” implies individual hospital staff members. While individual members of a group may wear uniforms, the group itself (which is abstract and unable to put on clothes) cannot.

Another way to think about the difference: The words “the office” or “our office” may refer to a group of employees who share a common workplace and, together, constitute an entity known as “the office”. For instance, “Our office holds an annual holiday party.” Note that “our office” is used with a singular form of the verb “to hold”. (“Holds” is the same form of “to hold” that would be used with the singular pronouns “he”, “she”, or “it”.) Also consider, “Our office goes out to lunch every Tuesday.” It would not be correct to say, “Our office hold an annual party” or “Our office go out to lunch every Tuesday.” Here, “hold” and “go” (plural forms of the verbs “to hold” and “to go”, respectively) do not “match” the singular noun “our office”. The mismatch holds, even though “our office” consists of multiple people.

“Who” versus “Whom”

Another word pair that often creates confusion for writers is “who” and “whom.” To properly learn which one to use, we first must clearly understand the difference between the subject and the object of a sentence. Basically, the subject is the one taking the action, and the object is the one that is the recipient of that action. For example, if Johnny hits Billy, Johnny is doing the hitting and is thus the subject, whereas Billy is being hit and is thus the object.

Now, let’s move on to “who” and “whom.” Both of these words are interrogative pronouns, i.e., pronouns used to ask questions. “Who” is a subjective interrogative pronoun. In other words, “who” is used as the subject of a sentence when asking a question. For example, “Who won the race?” “Whom” is an objective interrogative pronoun. In other words, “whom” is used as the object of a sentence or a preposition when asking a question. For example, “Whom did you beat in your race?” In this instance, you see that we are asking about the object of the sentence, i.e., the person who was beat.

To simplify things a bit, think of our first example. Who hit whom? Johnny hit Billy. Hopefully, you will now be able to confidently use “who” and “whom” in your writing.

“Affect” versus “Effect”

Writers are often confused by the similar word pair “affect” and “effect.” Yet, a simple rule will help you determine which one to properly use in almost every situation. Generally speaking, “affect” is typically used as a verb meaning “to influence, act on, or cause a change in.” For example, “the early frost affected the yields of the crops.” In contrast, “effect” is typically used as noun meaning “a result or consequence.” For example, “the effects of the early frost on the crops were quite remarkable.”

My little trick for remembering which word to use in the right situation is to remember the phrase “cause and effect.” This reminds me that “effect” is usually used as a noun as is the case in this phrase, and by process of elimination, “affect” is usually used as a verb.

Following this general guideline will help you to use the two words appropriately in almost every circumstance. However, I would be remiss if I did not highlight the exceptions to this guideline. For example, in psychology, “affect” can be used as a noun meaning “an expressed feeling or emotion.” However, this use is very specific to the field of psychology. Also, “effect” can occasionally be used as a verb to mean “bring about or accomplish.” For example, “new legislation is expected to effect change in the way campaign money is used.” Despite these exceptions, the previous guideline will help you confidently use these two often confused words with more confidence.