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Archive for the ‘agreement’ Category

Some writers are unsure about whether it’s “legal” to use the word you in their writing.

It’s fine — under certain circumstances.

When using the word you in a document, you should be referring to everyone who reads the document. Instructional documents like this blog use you because the material addresses everyone reading them.

Using you in how-to documents also makes writing simpler by eliminating problems with consistency in number or person or gender.

However, some people claim that writers should avoid you at all costs, saying that even in instructional documents, you is wrong:

First, you need to turn off the copier.

First, turn off the copier.

Actually, using you in the above example isn’t a grammar violation. But the second version is more concise, so eliminating you was a matter of style.

Also, directly addressing the audience automatically makes the writing less formal, so avoid the practice in formal situations.

In addition, you can be unnecessary or inaccurate. This is another of those areas — like using they instead of he or she — where people usually use incorrect wording, so the wrong way sounds right. For example, many people would write something like this:

I walked into the conference room and tried to put everyone at ease. But you could tell it was going to be a tense meeting by the way everyone avoided eye contact.

There’s no reason to shift to you as the person in the story. The readers of the story weren’t at the meeting. The correct thing to say is this:

I could tell it was going to be a tense meeting by the way everyone was avoiding eye contact.

However, using you has become a common way to say “anyone who would have been there would have experienced the same thing I did.” This is fine in casual conversation and informal e-mails. In fact, it is the dominant way this idea is expressed. But in formal documents, don’t use you unless it’s appropriate.

Next time: Grammar FAQ

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In most sentences, getting the subject and verb to agree is easy. However, three tricky types of sentences can turn this simple task into a complicated feat that requires three grammar handbooks and a call to your old English teacher.

1. Subjects connected by or

Subjects connected by and are easy: they take plural verbs.

The dean and faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.

However, in sentences with subjects connected by or (and in either/or, neither/nor sentences), the order of the sentence dictates the verb, with the verb matching the subject closest to it.

Neither the dean nor the faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.

Neither the faculty members nor the dean is creating the new hiring guidelines.

2. Sentences with words between the subject and verb

The goal of our Healthy Workplace Now and after-hours exercise programs is to reduce employee absenteeism.

It may sound strange to hear the words programs and is next to each other, but the above sentence is correct. The subject of the sentence is goal: The goal is to reduce employee absenteeism. It doesn’t matter how many words are between the subject and verb or whether those words are singular or plural.

3. Sentences with indefinite subjects

The following pronouns take singular verbs, even if they imply a sense of being plural:

  • anyone
  • anybody
  • either
  • everyone
  • everybody
  • everything
  • no one
  • someone
  • something

Everybody who applied for promotions is required to attend Monday’s meeting.

No one from the Kentucky or Tennessee offices is invited to the meeting.

If each stands alone as a subject, it takes a singular verb. If it isn’t standing alone, the verb choice will vary depending on whether the expression means “each one” or “both.”

Each of the committees has submitted a final report. (stands alone, so it’s singular)

Each manager and assistant manager is required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means each one, so it’s singular)

The manager and assistant manager each are required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means both, so it’s plural)

Other indefinite pronouns are more complicated. For example, some grammar handbooks still claim that the word none means “not one” and should always be singular. However, that interpretation has been disputed for centuries, with many distinguished grammarians pointing out that the meaning is closer to “not any.” Some sources that concur on the idea of none being plural in many uses:

  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage (dating back to the 1926 version)
  • The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
  • Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage
  • The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style

The misconception about none is similar to the classroom grammar myths outlined in a previous post except that it actually appears in some grammar handbooks, so I will call it a mythinterpretation.

Patricia O’Conner, author of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, calls the issue “none sense” and gives the clearest explanation:

If it suggests “none of them,” it’s plural: None of the fans are fighting. None are excited enough.

If it suggests “none of it,” it’s singular: None of the bout was seen in Pittsburgh. None was worth broadcasting.

Note: When you really do mean “not one,” it’s better to say “not one” and use a singular verb: Not one of Holyfield’s fingers was broken.

I hope these last three blog posts have helped your sentences to be more agreeable.

Next time: Don’t talk to me! (Correct use of you)

References

Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford, 1996. Print.

Butler, et al. Correct Writing. 6th ed. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1995. Print.

Garner, Bryan A. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York: Oxford, 2000. Print.

Hacker, Diana. The Bedford Handbook for Writers. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford, 1994. Print.

Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2010. Print.

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 2002.

O’Conner, Patricia T. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Putnam, 1996. Print.

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Rock bands and sports teams cause chaos among grammarians. In the last post, I described how collective nouns — words like jury that refer to a group of people acting as one unit — take singular pronouns. (They also take singular verbs.) Therefore, these sentences are correct:

The band released its latest CD.

The team posted its injury report on the Internet.

But what about these sentences?

The Rolling Stones released its latest CD.

The Pittsburgh Steelers posted its injury report on the Internet.

They sound terrible! And good luck finding guidance in grammar books, most of which avoid the tricky issue of whether the names of rock bands and sports teams are singular or plural.

However, other reference books have declared usage rules for the fields of sports and entertainment, where the names of collective units usually sound plural. (A note to my international readers: These are guidelines for American English. The British have a different outlook on collective nouns.)

The Associated Press Stylebook offers this somewhat contradictory entry:

Team names and musical groups that are plural take plural verbs. The Yankees are in first place. The Jonas Brothers are popular. Team or group names with no plural forms also take plural verbs: The Miami Heat are battling for third place…. Many singular names take singular verbs: Coldplay is on tour. Boston is favored in the playoffs. The Cardinal is in the NCAA tournament.

Linguistic nitpicker William Safire wrote a column on the topic after receiving queries about how to handle situations where teams like the Miami Heat or Colorado Avalanche play teams with plural names:

I see a headline atop The Washington Post: “Jazz Beats Bulls,” with the verb construing the first team, from Utah, as singular. Had the game gone the other way, however, the headline would have read “Bulls Beat Jazz,” construing the Chicago team as plural.

His verdict? Writers should “go with the natural sound of the language. If the team name ends in s, go with the plural verb…. If not, construe it as singular.”

However, most journalists shun the idea of mixing and matching. Rolling Stone magazine disregards the AP stylebook and uses all band names as plurals, as evidenced by these examples from the magazine’s web site:

On a Saturday night in late February, Coldplay are in their North London headquarters, listening to mixes of new songs. 

U2 are legendary for their heartfelt connection with concert audiences. 

Sports Illustrated and ESPN use plural references for all teams, even the Heat and the Jazz.

That usage clashes with the rules for corporate names. General Motors and Dunkin’ Donuts are singular entities that take singular verbs and pronouns even though their names end in s. Therefore, all of these are correct:

General Motors is firing three executives.

The Packers are firing three trainers.

The Foo Fighters are firing three crew members.

What’s the difference? Maybe having the word the in front of band and team names makes the plural version a natural choice.

Or maybe it’s because people don’t stand and cheer at the end of a board meeting.

Additional reading

For more information about the controversy over team names (and more details about British English rules on the subject), read this post from Minnesota Public Radio News that uses the Minnesota Wild hockey team as an example:

Grammar Gone Wild

References

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2011. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print.

Robicheau, Paul. “A Beautiful Night for U2. Rolling Stone. 26 March 2011. Web. 4 Jan. 2012. (Read story here.)

Safire, William. “Singular Heat?” No Uncertain Terms. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. 273-276. Print.

Serpick, Evan. “In the Studio: Coldplay.” Rolling Stone. 20 Mar. 2008. Web. 5 Jan. 2012. (Read story here.)

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What’s wrong with this message, one that goes out to WordPress bloggers thousands of times a day?

No, the answer is not “Jay P. Johnson has poor taste in blogs.” The problem involves agreement. Jay is one person, or singular in grammar lingo. Their is plural. The two words don’t agree.

Reaching agreement is hard in business and in life, and sometimes it’s even harder for writers to get nouns and pronouns to agree. Fortunately, many people miss agreement errors anyway, so no one may notice that you slipped up and wrote they instead of it. But grammar-savvy people all agree: Right is better.

The main problem with pronoun reference comes from a longstanding rule. For centuries, grammar books insisted that the gender of any indefinite subject was male. However, most modern employees would not want to risk the wrath of their female counterparts by writing this:

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

Obviously, business executives can be male or female, but technically, the pesky rule said to refer to them all as men. So people started indiscriminately using their to solve the problem. However, in many situations the word is incorrect.

Current grammar books suggest working around the rule to avoid sexism. Here are a few techniques:

1. Use plurals because plural references have no gender.

Good business executives should hone their computer skills.

2. Use both a masculine and feminine pronoun.

A good business executive should hone his or her computer skills.

3. Use a slash.

A good business executive should hone his/her computer skills.

This technique gets awkward, so use it sparingly. Another hybrid that’s popping up is s/he, which goes beyond awkward. Please avoid it so it doesn’t catch on and become acceptable!

4. Mix and match throughout the document.

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

A company president should remember her responsibilities to her employees.

The mix-and-match method is tricky. Some nonfiction books will use female references in one chapter and male references in the next in an attempt to be fair and consistent at the same time, but in the end this method will feel inconsistent at some level.

5. Rewrite the sentence.

Computer skills are vital for today’s business executive.

One singular sensation

Probably the most common violation of proper pronoun agreement is using the word they, a plural pronoun, to refer back to collective nouns. Collective nouns name a group acting as a single unit and are supposed to take singular pronouns:

The committee presented its findings.

The jury announced its verdict.

Because groups and corporations are run by many people, writers tend to think of those entities in terms of people, a plural concept, instead of the proper singular perspective:

WRONG: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of their business practices.

RIGHT: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of its business practices.

WRONG: Dunkin’ Donuts released their financial report.

RIGHT: Dunkin’ Donuts released its financial report.

Next time: How the Miami Heat upset the grammar world

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