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Category : Punctuation Rules

Subject-Verb Agreement: Not So Simple

The subject-verb agreement in a sentence seems simple on the surface, but this concept can trip up even those who should seemingly know better. Recently, I witnessed a thread on a popular social media platform. A friend of mind posted something similar to the following (the actual post and responses have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty): “Making muffins have helped my diet plan.” She then specifically called out an elementary school teacher to ask if she should have used the verb “have” or “has.” This teacher then pontificated at great length about how she chose correctly because “muffins” plural, making the choice of the plural verb “have” correct. Ummm… No.

So, let’s review subject-verb agreement, shall we? The simple case – singular verbs require the use of singular verb forms, and plural verbs require the use of plural verb forms. For example:
“The bird sings a beautiful song. The birds sing a beautiful song.”

A prepositional phrase or any other phrase separating the subject from the noun does not change the verb form. Take the following sentence as an example:
“The bird with the many colors sings a beautiful song.”

In our original example, the sentence is a little more tricky because the subject of the sentence is a gerund (i.e., “making muffins”), not “muffins.” Given that the subject is the gerund “making muffins,” the verb should be singular (i.e., “has”). Therefore, the correct sentence is “Making muffins has helped my diet plan.” If you think about the subject of the sentence as “the act of making muffins,” this makes identifying the need to use a singular verb more straightforward.

Honestly, there are several more factors to consider regarding subject-verb agreement. For example, certain sentences are formed in such a way that the subject comes after the verb (e.g., questions and sentences starting with “there” or “here”). For example:
“Where are the children?” “There are five girls on the team.” “Here is the plan for the game tonight.”

For a complete list of rules on subject-verb agreement, see a very good article by Your Dictionary (20 Rules of Subject Verb Agreement).

Remember that the only part of the sentence that can affect the verb is the subject.

The Dreaded Comma Splice!

Ah, the comma splice… This grammar blunder struck fear in the deepest recesses of my heart in my high school English days and continues to make me shudder just a bit when I see one to this day. I can attribute this somewhat irrational fear of comma splices to my sophomore AP English teacher, Shirley Lyster. Miss Lyster threatened to give a failing grade to any paper that included even just one comma splice, hence my fear and trepidation. It worked, Miss Lyster! I now hate comma splices and spot them everywhere!
So, what is a comma splice? It is the use of a comma to “splice” two independent clauses together without a coordinating conjunction. Let’s look at the following example borrowed from the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by The Charlie Daniels Band released on their 1979 album Million Mile Reflections: “The devil went down to Georgia, he was looking for a soul to steal.” This is a comma splice. We have two independent clauses (i.e., two sentences that can stand alone) that were erroneously joined together by a comma and nothing else.
We can fix this a number of ways. We can simply change the comma to a semicolon: “The devil went down to Georgia; he was looking for a soul to steal.” We can add a subordinating conjunction: “The devil went down to Georgia because he was looking for a soul to steal.” We can add a coordinating conjunction and a comma: “The devil went down to Georgia, and he was looking for a soul to steal.” We can add a conjunctive adverb and a semicolon: “The devil went down to Georgia; moreover, he was looking for a soul to steal.” Lastly, we can simply separate the two sentences into the two separate independent clauses by changing the comma to a period: “The devil went down to Georgia. He was looking for a soul to steal.”
While comma splices may not be the bane of modern life, they are a grammatical mistake that you should avoid. Thankfully, you have many tools at your disposal to fix these errors, so they are relatively easy to avoid.

I.e. versus E.g.

Some of the most consistent problems that I see while editing academic papers are the incorrect usage and inconsistent punctuation of i.e. and e.g. These two elucidating pairs of letters seem to cause quite a few problems for even the most erudite of academic writers, so the subject of how to use the abbreviations i.e. and e.g. properly and consistently certainly deserves its own post. In many cases, it’s clear to me as an editor that the author just doesn’t know which one to use, even though the rest of their project may be brilliant. In other cases, it’s clear that the author knows which one to use, but the inconsistent punctuation used throughout the project reveals that effective comma usage remains a mystery. This post should clear up both of those issues.

To understand the rules on both proper usage and the proper punctuation when using i.e. or e.g., it’s helpful to understand their origins. It’s true that too many English grammar and punctuation rules aren’t rules at all. English is full of ambiguity and exceptions. So isn’t it a good thing i.e. and e.g. originate in Latin? Both letters are abbreviations for Latin phrases and are meant to clarify something or provide additional information. The letters i.e. come from the Latin phrase id est, which means that is. The letters e.g. come from the Latin phrase exempli gratia, which means for the sake of example.

Understanding their origins, then, clarifies the scenarios in which we should use each phrase. The letters i.e. are only used when restating or more succinctly clarifying something that was already stated, that is, it is not used to precede a list of examples. A list of examples is primarily the function of e.g., as demonstrated by its Latin origin, exempli gratia.

To illustrate: I love the best team in baseball, i.e., the Milwaukee Brewers. In the preceding sentence, I use i.e., because I’m clarifying that the best team in baseball is the Milwaukee Brewers and none other. There is no other best team in baseball.

Argue with me on that. Go ahead. I dare you.

In contrast, I love all the best sports teams, e.g., the Milwaukee Brewers, the Green Bay Packers, and the Milwaukee Bucks. Here, I’m providing a list of examples, and it is not necessarily an all-inclusive list. I could love other great sports teams, e.g., any sports team fielded by the University of Wisconsin. See what I did there?

Likewise, remembering the origins of the abbreviations i.e. and e.g. aids in remembering that a comma should be placed after the letters. Simply replacing the Latin abbreviations with their English translations demonstrates the point. Using the above examples, we could just as easily write the following: I love the best team in baseball, that is, the Milwaukee Brewers; and I love all the best sports teams, for example, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Green Bay Packers, and the Milwaukee Bucks. When using each phrase in English, a comma would be appropriate; therefore, a comma is appropriate when using the Latin abbreviations. Although a comma is almost always called for in American English, British English may sometimes omit the comma. If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out the Grammar Girl post on the subject. She has worked up a chart demonstrating which style guides recommend a comma and which ones don’t.

Here’s a hint to save you some time: Nearly all style guides recommend using a comma after i.e. and e.g. when introducing clarification or examples, respectively.

If all that is too complicated to remember, try using a memory trick. The trick that I have found to be the most popular and effective involves coming up with your own English translation for the letters. When using i.e., pretend that it means in essence. This will help remind you that you’re clarifying or restating what you’ve already said. For e.g., pretend that it means example given. This will help remind you that you’re providing a  non-exhaustive list of examples.