Archive for the ‘writing myths’ Category

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)


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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My recent post, “Lies Your English Teacher Told You,” received an overwhelming response, triggering more than 54,000 hits and hundreds of comments.

As I expected, the idea of not ending a sentence with a preposition generated the most passionate responses, so let me review some key topics:

1. My credentials

Although most readers were supportive, a few questioned my ability to proclaim that writers can end sentences with prepositions. I don’t expect you to trust an unknown blogger. Here are reputable sources that agree with my view:

Oxford Dictionaries

Merriam Webster Online

“Contrary to popular belief, it is not a mortal sin to end a sentence with a preposition, as long as the sentence sounds natural and its meaning is clear. . . . It is absolutely antiquated to forbid ending a sentence with a preposition.”

— The Grammar Bible (2004)

The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.”

— Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (2002)

“A preposition at the end of a sentence can be a sign that the sentence is awkwardly constructed. The branch office is where she was at. However, if a preposition falls naturally at the end of a sentence, leave it there. (‘I don’t remember which file I saved it under.’)”

— Handbook of Technical Writing, Ninth Edition (2009)

Many famous writers have ended sentences with prepositions. Just look at Hamlet’s soliloquy by William Shakespeare, who ends each stanza with a preposition:

By a sleep to say we end

The heartaches and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to.

Who would these fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death–

The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns– puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

2. Grammar vs. style

Although there is no grammar rule about sentence-ending prepositions, some readers aptly pointed out that in some cases they are a matter of style. As mentioned in the earlier handbook example, a sentence that is awkward or unclear with the preposition at the end should be recast.

3. Breaking the rules

Some people mistakenly interpreted the blog post as permission to break writing rules. No! I was clarifying that certain so-called rules are actually myths. Most writing rules are in place to enhance communication, so I don’t advocate abandoning them in workplace writing. Creative writing is another matter.

4. The audience

Even if you feel comfortable ending sentences with prepositions, keep in mind audience preferences. Some of my readers said they are annoyed by such sentences, even if there is no rule about then.  Certainly if you are writing a paper for an instructor or boss who hates sentence-ending prepositions, avoid using them!

5. Evolving language

One Canadian reader pointed out that English seems to evolve faster in the United States. He said that the Canadian journalism stylebook still forbids prepositions at the ends of sentences. I checked the two leading American journalism stylebooks; neither mentions the rule.

6. Practicality

Some readers pointed out that it would be impractical to avoid prepositions at the ends of sentences in certain circumstances, including questions

Where are you from?

and sentences where the preposition is part of a noun or verb:

After hearing the obscene caller on the other end of the phone, I hung up.

6. Lies

A few readers questioned my choice of the word lies in the title. I didn’t mean to suggest a conspiracy by English teachers to deceive students; I think in most cases the propagation of the rules is an honest mistake. In other cases, the teachers are probably trying to get students to avoid lazy habits like starting too many sentences with and. But in the end, I have to question why the teachers didn’t notice the absence of the rules in their textbooks (and the presence of violations of the rules in works by established writers) and yet still pounded the rules into students’ minds so effectively that many years later in my college classroom, the myths are among the few rules students remember consistently.

In school, I had teachers who would forbid students from starting sentences with but or using to be verbs. Such exercises strengthened my writing. However, my teachers always made it clear that the restrictions weren’t permanent rules, merely parts of practice exercises. I’m encouraging today’s teachers to do the same. (Trust me — I know they’re already doing a difficult job for low pay, and I wouldn’t trade places with them!)

7. Examples

A few readers wanted a clearer explanation of split infinitives. An infinitive is to plus a verb:

to walk

to run

to go

I embedded my examples in the lesson itself:

to boldly to

to gently split

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