Sunday, December 9, 2007

Number Agreement: A Reminder

Disagreement can be a good thing. It can foster discussion and lead to open dialogue. But between parts of speech, disagreement creates confusion and destroys clarity.

Nouns and their pals, verbs, must agree for a sentence to work. The verb must acknowledge how many of the subject are performing its action. Sure, you'd think the noun could bend from time to time, giving in to the verb to keep things on an even footing, but you'd be mistaken.

When writing, the subject of a sentence holds all of the power. Everything else revolves around it. Your subject should be performing any action, affecting objects, and basking in description. If the subject declares itself to be plural, the verb and the rest of the sentence have to play along.

Only in cases where the noun is of indeterminate number are other parts of speech allowed to choose. When writing about sheep and moose, for instance, only context allows your reader to know whether one or a flock watched you pass.

Unless you're a shepherd in the wilds of Canada, you likely don't write about such things often. Even when you do, you already know how many of your subject exist. Make certain that the rest of your sentence tells your readers as clearly as your recollection or imagination of the scene tells you.

When editing, you may change your mind about how many moose (or nouns) are involved in a sentence. That's why you edit. But remember that changing the number in a sentence involves the whole thing, not just revising your noun.

After you've edited, read your whole piece from start to finish. If you can, print it out and read it from the page. The change in perspective may allow you to see errors that had been hiding in the screen's familiarity. Read your work aloud, as well. Flow problems point to language troubles, which often highlight errors.