Common grammatical problems with clarity and logic
Most grammatical rules help us establish clear structure in language, meaning that they’re not just rules for the sake of having rules—they’re rules for the sake of clearer communication. This article outlines some of the most commonly violated grammatical rules that effect clarity or logic and don’t fit easily under other headings like punctuation or sentence structure.
Agreement issues come in different flavours, but the principle mistake is the same in each case: two things are supposed to match each other but don’t. The mismatches occur most commonly between pronouns (e.g. “he”) and their antecedents (e.g. “Jimmy”) and between subjects (e.g. “scissors”) and their verbs (e.g. “cut”).
Pronouns stand in for other nouns, and in most cases they figuratively point readers to nouns that have already been mentioned in a text. The noun that a pronoun points to is called an “antecedent.” Note, though, that an antecedent sometimes appears just after a pronoun.
Probably the most common (and controversial) disagreement is the pronoun “they” referring to a singular antecedent (e.g. “an engineer”). Casual writers will likely find themselves deploying “they” in this way to avoid gender bias.
Example: “They” to avoid gender bias
If an engineer will have to redesign the bridge, they will have to redesign it with care.
Even if they’re wrongly irate, a chastiser is not irritated without reason.
For this and other purposes, “they” has been used to refer to singular antecedents for a very long time—and by the likes of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and many other renowned writers in many renowned works. Thus, although standard writing advice tends to say the singular “they” is wrong, one shouldn’t get too uppity when a writer uses “they” in this way.
Still, there are other, less controversial ways to avoid gender bias, and many supervisors and other readers will chastise you (rightly or wrongly) for using the singular “they.” Even if they’re wrongly irate, these chastisers are not irritated without reason, since this singular use of “they” can easily confuse or obscure your meaning. As always in writing, the real question is not whether it’s acceptable, after all, but whether it’s the clearest way to express something.
Rephrasing is often easy and almost always possible, so cautious writers avoid the singular “they.” You have options: make the pronoun singular (note that a gender problem arises here), form a plural antecedent, or find a way to eliminate the pronoun.
Examples: Rephrasing to avoid “they” (compare with examples above)
If an engineer will have to redesign the bridge, she will have to redesign it with care.
If engineers will have to redesign the bridge, they will have to redesign it with care.
If the bridge will have to be redesigned, the engineer responsible will have to do it with care.
Even if wrongly irate, a chastiser is not irritated without reason.
Finally, and most importantly, in certain cases “they” will be unarguably confusing when used to refer to a singular antecedent. In these cases, all will agree, “they” is unacceptable.
Example: Confusing “they” referring to singular antecedent
If the robber is caught stealing from her, they [the robber and her?] will go to jail.
If the robber is caught stealing from her, that thief will go to jail.
Did you know?
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Problems with subject-verb agreement arise when the number of the subject and verb differ. The rule is, in principle, simple: a singular subject takes a singular verb, while a plural subject takes a plural verb. Much of the time, this rule is fairly straightforward, but certain patterns produce problems here.
Writers are sometimes confused when the verb appears beside a plural noun, but that noun is not the subject determining the form of that verb. As a rule, the thing doing the action (the subject) determines the form of the verb chosen to represent that action.
Examples: Confusing distant verb referring to singular noun
The pencil among the pens, highlighters, and chalk sticks are reserved for Jimmy.
The pencil among the pens, highlighters, and chalk sticks is reserved for Jimmy.
The carton of eggs fall from the counter.
The carton of eggs falls from the counter.
“As well as,” along with other tricky phrases
The phrases “as well as” and “along with” are sometimes treated like the word “and,” and this treatment produces some confusion. When a subject uses two nouns joined by “and,” it becomes what’s called a “compound subject” and takes a plural verb. By contrast, “as well as” and “along with,” together with other similar phrases (e.g. “in addition to” and “alongside”), are most safely considered not to create compound subjects.
In other words, if a singular subject precedes “as well as” (or any of the others), treat the verb as singular.
Examples: Using “as well as” and “along with”
The pencil, as well as with the desk in the corner, are reserved for Jimmy.
The pencil and the desk in the corner are reserved for Jimmy.
The pencil, along with the desk in the corner, is reserved for Jimmy.
More than one… are
This is the opposite of the problem that we just looked at—this time the subject is “more,” which is plural, but the singular noun (“one”) that appears beside the verb might trick you. “More” takes a plural verb when it refers to things that can be counted, although it take a singular verb when it refers to things that can’t (see examples 5 and 6 below).
Examples: Confusing plural subject and singular verb
More than one of the students covets Jimmy’s desk.
More than one of the students covet Jimmy’s desk.
More than one have escaped this desert island.
More than one has escaped this desert island.
More water is to be added to the recipe.
More pizza makes for more fun.
Either, each, every, everyone, any, anyone… is
All of these pronouns (termed “indefinite pronouns”) regularly cause confusion. While they seem to refer to more than one thing, they are treated as singular nouns are treated.
Examples: “Either” and “each” treated as singular noun
Either Moby Dick or Ulysses are on the course’s reading list.
Either are acceptable to me.
Either Moby Dick or Ulysses is on the course’s reading list.
Either is acceptable to me.
In that case, each of the books are acceptable.
In that case, each of the books is acceptable.
A similar confusion arises with the coordinating conjunction “or.” Although two things might be linked by “or,” the verb still takes singular form since the usual meaning of “or” is that only one of the two choices applies. In fact, in the field of formal logic, “or” is referred to as a disjunction, not a conjunction, since it divides things rather than grouping them.
Example: Singular verb next to “or”
Coffee or tea satisfy the craving for something warm in the morning.
Coffee or tea satisfies the craving for something warm in the morning.