- Correct English
In the Department of Accounting Writing Program, “Micro Skills” refers to issues of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and correct English that every person should be able to master by the end of their college careers. Acceptable and superior papers should be almost entirely free of these kinds of errors.
You may notice that the topics below conform to the issues listed on the department’s standard gradesheet.
Mechanical problems are usually the simplest and easiest to fix. Often they slip by unnoticed not because the writer doesn’t know the proper usage but because of poor proofreading. You should be sure to proofread your documents carefully for all mechanical issues.
Spelling refers to the correct spelling of a word. Please see the page Troublesome Words and Phrases for help on common spelling mistakes.
Choosing the wrong word or phrase can make your meaning unclear. Please see the page Troublesome Words and Phrases for help on common word-choice mistakes.
Whenever putting something in quotation marks, always use double quotes, even if you’re only quoting a single word:
- At Cost Corp., we believe the customer is ‘sometimes’ right.
- At Cost Corp., we believe the customer is “sometimes” right.
There are three basic rules for placing punctuation in conjunction with a quotation:
1. Commas and periods ALWAYS go inside the quotation marks.
- “Give me liberty or give me death”, said Patrick Henry.
- The CEO has promised us “more and better benefits”.
- “Give me liberty or give me death,” said Patrick Henry.
- The CEO has promised us “more and better benefits.”
2. Colons and semicolons ALWAYS go outside the quotation marks.
- The CEO has promised us “more and better benefits;” however, he hasn’t made clear what those are.
- The expert claims “there are three ways to save money on insurance payments:” cutting costs, cutting coverage, and cutting claims.
- The CEO has promised us “more and better benefits”; however, he hasn’t made clear what those are.
- The expert claims “there are three ways to save money on insurance payments”: cutting costs, cutting coverage, and cutting claims.
3. Question marks and exclamation points MAY go inside or outside the quotation marks, depending on whether the question mark or exclamation point is punctuating just the material inside the quotation marks or the whole sentence. If the question mark or exclamation point belongs to ONLY the quoted material, it goes inside the quotes. If it’s punctuating the whole sentence, it goes outside the quotes.
- Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death”!
- Has the CEO truly provided us with “more and better benefits?”
- Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
- Has the CEO truly provided us with “more and better benefits”?
Many students have trouble remembering when a word is plural, when it is possessive, and when it is plural possessive. A possessive indicates ownership or belonging (I picked up the man’s briefcase), and a plural indicates that there is more than one of something (The men dropped their briefcases). A plural possessive means that more than one person or entity owns something else (The CPAs’ jobs are all under threat). The placement of the apostrophe is the main issue here.
You need to use an apostrophe whenever you want to show that someone owns something. If you fail to use an apostrophe with possessives, your sentence will make no sense. For instance:
- Incorrect: “The dogs breakfast was cold.”
- Correct: “The dog’s breakfast was cold.”
On the other hand, you don’t want to use an apostrophe with nonpossessive plurals. If you use an apostrophe with plurals, your sentence will make no sense. For instance:
- Incorrect: “The dog’s liked their cold breakfast.
- Correct: “The dogs liked their cold breakfast.”
There are seven basic rules that govern the use of apostrophes to form the possessive:
1. Add an apostrophe plus an S to most singular nouns and to plural nouns that do not end in S.
- chicken's life
- woman's bag
- the law's power
Plural nouns not ending in S
- geese's pecking
- women's rights
- children's friends
2. Add an apostrophe plus an S to singular nouns that end in S or an S sound.
- Jess's racquet
- Getz's friends
Exception: Use the apostrophe by itself with singular words ending in S when the possessive does not add another syllable to the word:
- Texas' first settlement
- Jesus' words
3. Add only an apostrophe to plural nouns that end in S.
- dogs' leashes
- hostesses' efforts
- students' opinions
- Smiths' home
4. Indicate possession only at the end of a compound or hyphenated words.
- president-elect's decision
- U.S. Post Office's efficiency
5. Indicate possession only once when two nouns share ownership.
- Peg and Al's store
- Vorhees and Goetz's offices
6. But when ownership is separate, each noun shows possession.
- Peg's and Al's education
- Vorhees' and Goetz's offices
7. DO NOT use an apostrophe with personal pronouns. The forms "it's" and "who's" are contractions for “it is” and “who is” and shouldn't be confused with the possessive pronouns “its” and “whose.”
- It's (it is) an idea that has its (possessive) opponents alarmed.
- Who's (who is) to say whose (possessive) opinion is right?
Don't add apostrophes to yours, hers, his, ours, or theirs.
The rules listed above work exactly the same way for acronyms (words made up of the first letters of a title or phrase, such as CEO or CPA).
- The plural of CEO is CEOs; it means more than one CEO.
- The possessive of CEO is CEO’s; it will come before something that belongs to a single CEO. For instance: the CEO’s retirement package.
- The plural possessive of CEO is CEOs’; it will come before something that belongs to more than one CEO. For instance: the CEOs’ retirement packages.
Commas do a variety of things in a sentence, including:
- Separate words or groups of words in a list or parallel construction
- Set off introductory elements, interruptions, and words moved from their usual position
- Coordinate grammatical structures
- Prevent misreading and create emphasis
Reading aloud is NOT a good test for comma placement. There are very specific rules that govern comma placement in English. Because it’s not always possible to place your commas by ear, it’s worth spending a few minutes learning the basics.
There are a few basic rules to remember for placing commas:
1. Words, clauses, and phrases of equal value arranged in a series are separated by commas. Whenever you have a list of items in a sentence place commas between the items. Usually the last item in a series is preceded by the conjunction “and.” You can either put a comma before this “and” or leave it out, but you should be consistent in using or losing it. (This type of punctuation is also called the “serial comma.”)
- A successful business must provide its employees with pencils paper and paid vacations.
- Any self-respecting eccentric billionaire must hoard rubies, diamonds, and empty Kleenex boxes.
2. A comma comes between two independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions, such as “and,” “but,” “nor,” “neither,” “for,” or “so.” A “clause” is a group of words that contains a noun and a verb. If the sentence includes words that modify that noun and verb, those modifiers are considered part of the clause as well. (See the “Parts of a Sentence: A Brief Primer” page for more on nouns, verbs, modifiers, and phrases and clauses.) A clause is “independent” if it can stand alone as a short sentence.
- The company president wants a copy of your interoffice memo but I’m sorry to say that my dog ate all remaining copies.
- I did not realize that my email would be preserved in the company files nor that the janitor would find it so amusing.
- My employer has offered me two alternatives neither of which appeals to me at all.
- The recruiter asked me to sign the contract in blood, but I don’t consider that binding.
- The new accountant in cubicle 39D is clearly highly skilled, and also has entrancing hazel eyes.
- My manager has just dismissed me, so I intend to put a squid in her desk.
3. Use a comma after a dependent clause, usually a fairly long one, that precedes an independent clause. A clause is “dependent” if it requires another clause to support or complete its meaning. Dependent clauses often begin with subordinating conjunctions such as “if,” “because,” “after,” “although,” “since,” “unless,” “whether,” and “until.”
- Because I always hated the superintendent I quit my job and went to taxidermy school instead.
- Although she bemoans the plight of baby harp seals Wanda continues to invest in environmentally unfriendly companies.
- Since we changed the corporate dress policy, casual Fridays have gone by the wayside.
- Until I see evidence to the contrary, I will assume that my fellow employees are good and decent folk.
4. Use commas to set off the person(s) spoken to in direct address. If you are writing within quotes and addressing someone (or even reporting the fact that someone else addressed someone), you use commas around the addressee’s name.
- Mr. Kendrick said, “Come here Hitchens and bring me those papers I asked for.”
- Hitchens replied, “I will be there in a moment, Mr. Kendrick, after I finish typing the papers.”
5. Words that follow a noun or pronoun and identify it are set off by commas if the words are not essential to the meaning of the sentence.
To determine whether modifying words and phrases are essential to the meaning of the sentence, you can try a couple of tests. Imagine placing the words in parentheses. Does the sentence still read properly? If so, then the words are not essential. If this test doesn’t work, try taking the words out completely. How much has the sentence’s meaning changed? If it has changed little, then the words are not essential. If the meaning is seriously changed or impaired, the words are essential.
- The photocopy machine smoking and crackling rolled down the hall.
- Rock Throughput, Acme's second-in-command, chose a safari outfit for the upcoming presentation.
Don't, however, use commas if the word or phrase is essential to the meaning of the sentence.
- Billionaire, Bill Gates, got a pie in the face on Tuesday.
- Poverty-rights advocate Lurleen Reynolds enjoyed the sight very much.
6. A comma is necessary between two adjectives when they modify the same noun. To determine whether an adjective modifies a noun or another adjective, try inserting the word “and” between the two adjectives. If the sentence makes sense, then the adjective modifies the noun. If the sentence reads oddly, the adjective probably modifies the other adjective.
- The exhausted traders let out a weak throaty cheer.
- Ms. Fitzsimmons is a valuable client, but she is also a whiny, imperious brat.
However, if the first adjective modifies the idea set forth by the second adjective and the noun combined, no comma is necessary between the adjectives.
- For my first job interview I decided to wear my pale, yellow pantsuit.
- On my way down in the elevator I admired the bright pink slip in my hand.
7. A comma is necessary to set off contrasting expressions within a sentence. In this situation, a comma emphasizes the fact that you are switching from one idea to another. You may be modifying a notion that you have just introduced, or altering it, or undermining it. A comma is needed between the two phrases to help the reader understand your shift in tone.
- Gerald Whiskers is a businessman but also a gentleman.
- The more Acme resisted the FTC's request, the more implacable the agency became.
- I wanted money, not praise.
8. An adverbial phrase beginning a sentence is followed by a comma. An “adverbial phrase” is a group of words that modifies a verb. You can spot an adverbial phrase because it tells you something about how, where, when, or why an action is performed. If you’re having trouble with this rule, you should first isolate the verb in the sentence; then work backward to find the phrase that tells you more about it. This rule is a refinement of Rule #3 above.
- Although Susie is an able investment banker she refuses to help me balance my checkbook. (The verb is “refuses,” and the preceding phrase tells more about how/why the refusal is performed.)
- When we received our invitations to the company picnic, we were ecstatic. (The verb is “were,” and the preceding phrase tells more about when we were…whatever.)
However, once you’ve found the verb in the sentence, check to see where it comes in relation to the phrase that modifies it. If the two are side by side, you probably don’t need a comma. If they’re separated by other words, you will need a comma. Reading the sentence aloud, with an exaggerated pause where the comma would fall, will help you to determine whether a comma is necessary.
- Around the 15 banquet tables, hovered the hungry interns. (The verb is “hovered,” and the preceding phrase tells you where the hovering was done. Because the verb and its modifying phrase are side by side, you don’t need a comma.)
- Close to the CEO’s feet crouched a miserable-looking man. (The verb is “crouched,” and the preceding phrase tells where the crouching was done. Again, because the two are side by side, no comma is needed.)
9. A dependent clause followed by a main clause is set off by a comma. See Rule #3 for an explanation of dependent clauses. The main clause of a sentence is the one that contains the most important noun and verb. The dependent clause may contain other nouns and/or verbs, but it will not be a complete sentence or idea on its own. If the dependent clause comes first in a sentence, you should put a comma between it and the main clause.
- By the time Sybil got here we were too angry to speak.
- Because Lewis is so friendly, he was hired right away.
10. An introductory participial or infinitive phrase should be set off by a comma. A “participial phrase” is a phrase with a verb in the present tense ending in “-ing,” or one in the past tense ending in “-d,” “-ed,” “-n,” “-en,” or “-t.” An “infinitive phrase” is a phrase with the verb in this form: “to laugh.” When a phrase of this kind works to introduce or describe the main clause of a sentence, you need to place a comma between it and the main clause.
- Snoring loudly Gruberson slumped over the conference table.
- To prevent accidents always wear a seat belt.
- Shaking her head sadly, Ms. Fuller made her way around the desk.
- To allow for scheduling errors, we try never to plan ahead.
If the introductory participial phrase immediately precedes, and forms a part of, the verb, DO NOT set it off with a comma. In this case, the sentence actually splits the verb into two, and you have to imagine putting the parts together again. Find the main verb, and try pairing it with the participle or infinitive to form a complete verb. You will have to shuffle the sentence to do this, but it will help you to see the relationship of the words. Then look back to the original sentence to see whether the introductory phrase is next to the main verb. If it is, you don’t need a comma.
- Standing nervously by the water cooler, was the new secretary. (Rephrase as: “The new secretary was standing nervously by the water cooler.” The verb is actually “was standing”—the sentence splits the verb into two, but since the participial phrase is right next to the main verb “was,” a comma is not needed.)
- Growing up in a rough neighborhood was my best training for the business world. (Rephrase as: “My best training for the business world was growing up in a rough neighborhood.” The verb is actually “was growing up”—the sentence splits the verb in two, but since the participial phrase is right next to the main verb “was,” a comma is not needed.)
11. Commas set off phrases and clauses that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. What this means: A simple test for whether a phrase or clause is essential to the meaning of a sentence is to imagine placing the phrase or clause in parentheses. If the sentence reads the same after this change, you can be sure that the words in parentheses are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. You must be careful, though, that the parentheses don’t change the meaning of the sentence. If the phrase or clause is telling you exactly which summer intern is in question (the one by the photocopier), it’s essential to the meaning of the sentence. If it’s telling you something about the summer intern that you don’t really need to know (her brother won the state wrestling championship), it’s nonessential. Remember that dependent clauses can be essential to the meaning of a sentence.
- That summer intern, by the photocopier, knows Japanese. (“By the photocopier” is an essential clause—it tells you which summer intern we’re talking about. Therefore, it does not need commas.)
- That summer intern whose brother won the state wrestling championship knows Japanese. (“Whose brother won the state wrestling championship” is a nonessential clause—it tells us an interesting fact about the intern, but doesn’t define exactly which intern we mean. Therefore, it needs commas.)
- That summer intern by the photocopier knows Japanese.
- That summer intern, whose brother won the state wrestling championship, knows Japanese.
12. A comma is used to indicate omitted material readily understood from the context. Sometimes when you’re repeating part of a sentence using exactly the same words, it makes sense to omit the words that the reader can supply without effort. This omission helps your style appear fluid and natural, and avoids repetition. (Be careful, however, not to omit words that your reader needs to understand a sentence easily.) When you omit these words, put a comma in their place.
- Some of us like cash-based accounting; others accrual
- Some of us like cash-based accounting; others, accrual.
13. A comma is used to set off conjunctive adverbs. Conjunctive adverbs are used with a semicolon to connect independent clauses. Look for words like: “however,” “moreover,” “furthermore,” “nevertheless,” “then,” “therefore,” and “thus.” You can hear the natural pause around these words when you use them in speech; you should, therefore, put commas around them in your writing.
- We understand that you are highly qualified for this position; therefore we will offer it to someone else.
- The company president appreciated your witty memo; moreover he wants to see you in his office right away.
- It is our opinion that you are the best candidate for the job; furthermore, we like your suit.
- The early bird gets the worm; however, the late employee gets the ten o’clock donut cart.
The semicolon is a versatile piece of punctuation, falling somewhere between the comma and the colon in strength. Use semicolons to join two complete sentences without a conjunction between them. In other words, if the two parts of your sentence could each stand alone as a complete and logical sentence, and you don’t have an “and/but/or” word between them, you need to use a semicolon. If you only use a comma, you’ll be writing a run-on sentence.
- The boss is on a rampage, run and hide.
- The boss is on a rampage; run and hide.
- (Or, “The boss is on a rampage! Run! Hide!”)
Dashes are used differently from semicolons, colons, and commas, and in the world of publishing they come in different sizes and lengths. (In most word-processing programs, typing in two hyphens in a row will automatically cause the program to place the proper kind of dash for you.) A pair of dashes is used to set off interruptions in the sentence. Whenever your sentence breaks off to talk about something that has little to do with its original subject matter, you use dashes to alert your reader. The first dash essentially means, “We’re going to take a little trip now,” and the second dash means, “We’re back.”
- Melvin Bunbaker, son of Gertrude and Bailey Bunbaker, and heir to the Bunbaker fortune—sneezed violently.
- Melvin Bunbaker—son of Gertrude and Bailey Bunbaker, and heir to the Bunbaker fortune—sneezed violently.
“Correct English” refers to writing complete, grammatically correct sentences. Problems occurring because of incorrect English are easy to fix when you know what to look for. Often these problems slip by unnoticed not because the writer doesn’t know the proper usage but because of poor proofreading. You should be sure to proofread your documents carefully for all correct English issues.
A sentence is often defined as a group of words consisting of at least one independent clause. But if you look up "independent clause," you'll often find it defined as "a group of words that can stand alone as a sentence," so this is not the most helpful definition. Instead, you should think of a sentence (or an independent clause) as a group of words expressing a complete thought.
A phrase or clause that cannot stand alone is a fragment:
- Until I learned about Nike's overseas business practices.
- Although I believe Sarbanes-Oxley was an important first step.
Notice that the fragments above don't express a complete thought. They contain a subject and a verb, but they still leave the reader wondering what the author is really talking about. The real problem is the first word in each sentence: "until" and “although.” If those words were not present, then the sentences would be complete and correct. They would simply tell us that the speaker learned about Nike's overseas business practices and that the author believes in the importance of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. But the inclusion of "until" and “although” leads the reader to expect something more from these sentences, such as a description of what things were like before the writer learned about Nike's overseas business practices or what the writer’s argument is against cash-based accounting. That expectation is never fulfilled; therefore, the sentences are fragments. (Fragments are also known as ”dependent clauses”; they’re dependent because they cannot stand alone.)
- I was a big fan of the "Just Do It" ad campaign, until I learned about Nike's overseas business practices.
- Although I believe Sarbanes-Oxley was an important first step, the accounting profession still needs more oversight.
Look carefully at sentences that start with prepositions or conjunctions. See the Parts of Speech page for definitions of prepositions and conjunctions. Very often, complete sentences become fragments with the addition of one of these words. For instance, "I want a new job" is a complete sentence. "Because I want a new job" is a fragment; it leaves the reader without any information as to what happens because the writer wants a new job.
Sometimes you can make a fragment into a complete sentence just by taking out that meddlesome conjunction or preposition at its start. Sometimes you can do it by adding a few words of explanation, to express whatever meaning is missing.
You can also join the fragment to a neighboring sentence. Often, the meaning that is missing from a fragment is contained in a sentence just beside it. Join the fragment and the sentence with whatever punctuation or transition word is appropriate. Read the paragraph over to make sure that your new sentence isn't too long or awkward.
If your sentence expresses a complete thought, you should then check its punctuation. A complete sentence must have sufficient punctuation to separate its main ideas; if you do not include this punctuation, your sentence will very likely become a run-on.
A run-on sentence does not contain strong enough punctuation to show the relationship between the ideas in the sentence:
- In the middle of the meeting Paul stood up and began shouting, this display terrified the visiting CEO who dove beneath his desk.
Notice that the sentence contains three main ideas: 1.) Paul stood up and began shouting; 2.) this display terrified the visiting CEO; 3.) who dove beneath his desk. It's fine for a sentence to contain this many ideas, but it should also contain appropriate punctuation to separate and distinguish them from each other.
In this case, ideas 1.) and 2.) are independent clauses; they require a semicolon, or a comma and conjunction. Idea 3.) is a dependent clause, so it only requires a comma.
- In the middle of the meeting, Paul stood up and began shouting; this display terrified the visiting CEO, who dove beneath his desk.
- In the middle of the meeting, Paul stood up and began shouting. This display terrified the visiting CEO, who dove beneath his desk.
To pinpoint run-ons in your own writing, look carefully at the transition points in the sentence. Watch for important transition words— such as “and” or “however”— to see where punctuation may need to go. Decide which clauses in the sentence are independent (i.e., they could stand alone as complete sentences) and which ones are dependent (i.e., they would be fragments without some supporting material). Two independent clauses require a semicolon OR a conjunction and comma to join them. An independent clause joined to a dependent clause (i.e., a sentence fragment) can take a comma.
Sometimes it makes sense to chop a run-on sentence into two or even three shorter sentences. If you decide on this strategy, make sure that all of the shorter sentences are complete; they must be independent clauses. Read over the whole paragraph to make sure that you don't have a series of short sentences, which will seem choppy.
Verbs are action words, and the subject of your sentence is the person or thing that performs an action. In English, verbs change their forms (also called “cases”) according to the subject that is performing them. A subject and verb are said to “agree” when the form of the verb correctly matches the subject that is performing the action; if they don’t match, they don’t “agree.” For example:
- Subject and verb don’t agree: I frequently walks to work.
- Subject and verb agree: I frequently walk to work.
There are two important ways in which the subject and verb of a sentence must agree:
- Person: First-person subjects (I, we) take first-person verbs. Third-person subjects (he, she, it, they) take third-person verbs. See the sample sentence above for an example of a subject and verb that do not agree in person.
- Number: Plural subjects take plural verbs. Singular subjects take singular verbs. For example, you cannot correctly write, “The windows is open,” because “windows” is a plural subject, and “is” is a singular verb.
Most of the time, native speakers of English match their subjects and verbs without much effort. However, in some situations, making sure that subjects and verbs agree can be more difficult.
1. A compound subject joined by “and” takes a singular verb when the subject is considered to be a unit or a compound subject. A “compound subject” is a subject made up of two or more people or things. When two or more people or things are joined in the sentence by “and,” and they are performing a single action, use a singular verb if the subject is considered to be a single unit.
- Research and Development are reviewing the plans right now. (“Research and Development” is a single department and is considered to be a single unit.)
- Research and Development is reviewing the plans right now.
2. A compound subject joined by “and” takes a singular verb when both parts of the subject are modified by “each” or “every.” See above for an explanation of “compound subject.” If both parts of the subject are preceded by the word “each” or the word “every,” use a singular verb, because the words “each” and “every” refer to singular nouns whenever they are used. If only one part of the compound subject is preceded by one of these words, you must use a plural verb.
- Each employee and every manager are invited to our boring lecture.
- Each employee and every manager is invited to our boring lecture.
3. Compound subjects joined by “and” take a plural verb in all other cases. If you are writing about two entities performing a single action but still considering them as separate entities, you must use a plural verb. Likewise, if you don’t have “each” or “every” in front of both parts of the subject, you must use a plural verb.
- Willie and Belinda has resigned over the Donutgate scandal.
- Is the computer and the photocopier both Hewlett-Packard?
- Willie and Belinda have resigned over the Donutgate scandal.
- Are the computer and the photocopier both Hewlett-Packard?
4. Compound subjects joined by “or” or “nor” take a singular verb when the subject next to the verb is considered singular. If the two parts of a compound subject are joined by “or” or “nor,” check to see which part of the subject is closest to the verb. If this part of the subject is singular, you should use the singular verb.
- The file cabinets or the desk are the only place I ever put my keys.
- The file cabinets or the desk is the only place I ever put my keys.
5. Compound subjects joined by “or” or “nor” take a singular verb when both parts of the subject are singular. That means if the two parts of a compound subject are both singular, use the singular verb.
- The phone or the microwave are beeping; I can’t tell which.
- The phone or the microwave is beeping; I can’t tell which.
6. Compound subjects joined by “or” or “nor” take a plural verb when the subject next to the verb is considered plural. What this rule means: If the two parts of a compound subject are joined by “or” or “nor,” check to see which part of the subject is closest to the verb. If this part of the subject is plural, you should use the plural verb.
- The desk or the file cabinets is the place to look.
- The desk or the file cabinets are the place to look.
7. Compound subjects joined by “or” or “nor” take a plural verb when both parts of the subject are plural. If the two parts of a compound subject are plural, use the plural verb.
- Neither the managers nor the union organizers is interested in going out for ice cream.
- Neither the managers nor the union organizers are interested in going out for ice cream.
8. Plural nouns used as the titles of courses or subject areas, or as measurements or units of quantity (dollars, pounds, inches) take a singular verb. What this means: Don’t confuse plural nouns with compound nouns. Compound nouns involve two or more separate words, while plural nouns are a single word describing more than one noun. When a plural noun fits one of the descriptions above, it is considered to be a single unit. Use the singular verb in these cases.
- Fifty million dollars are a lot to spend on swizzle sticks.
- Economics 101 are really tough.
- Fifty million dollars is a lot to spend on swizzle sticks.
- Economics 101 is really tough.
9. Collective nouns take singular verbs when referring to the collective nature of the group; they take plural verbs when referring to individuals within the group. Collective nouns are nouns that describe a group of individuals. Examine sentences using collective nouns carefully. If the sentence emphasizes the identity of the group as a single unit, use the singular verb. If the sentence is speaking of individuals within the group, use the plural verb.
- The advisory council work hard. (In this case, the council is considered as a single unit; therefore, you should use the singular verb.)
- The advisory council is divided over the Donutgate scandal. (In this case, individual members of the council are being referred to; they disagree with each other. You should therefore use the plural verb.)
- The advisory council works hard.
- The advisory council are divided over the Donutgate scandal.
10. When describing the actions of a company or corporation or its management, use the singular verb. However, when describing the actions of people within the company, use the plural verb. Companies and corporations are collective nouns. Most often, it is appropriate to consider the company as a single unit, and to use the singular verb to describe its actions. If you are writing of the actions of groups of individuals within the company, however, then you should use the plural verb form.
- Bander Inc. are instituting new employee-friendly policies.
- Management are studying all the ways to save more money.
- Managers at Bander Inc. is instituting new employee-friendly policies.
- Bander Inc. is instituting new employee-friendly policies.
- Management is studying all the ways to save more money.
- Managers at Bander Inc. are instituting new employee-friendly policies.
Adjectives are words that describe a noun; adverbs are words that describe, or modify, verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Don’t confuse the two. Also, don’t confuse “-er” and “est” adjectives with the ones that take “more.” For example, the correct usage is “kinder” or “kindest,” not “more kind.”
- The CEO travels frequent to Europe to drum up new business.
- The CEO travels frequently to Europe to drum up new business.
Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns in a sentence. (For more information, see the Parts of Speech page.) There are many different pronouns, but all of them have specific uses, and you can’t mix those uses up. Certain pronouns replace certain kinds of nouns, according to the noun’s number and gender. Here are some examples of nouns and the pronouns that should replace them:
the errand boy (masculine, singular) = he
the errand girl (feminine, singular) = she
the company (neutral, singular) = it
the companies/errand boys/errand girls (any gender, plural) = they
Obviously, it’s impossible to give a complete list of every noun and its appropriate pronoun, but you get the idea. When a pronoun correctly matches the noun it replaces in number and gender, the pronoun is said to “agree” with the noun. When a pronoun does not correctly match its noun, it does not agree.
If you use the wrong pronoun to replace a noun, your reader will have trouble deciphering your sentence. For example:
- Representatives of up-and-coming corporate conglomerate DandyCorp. say that she’s a good investment.
Who’s the “she” in this sentence? DandyCorp. is a company; therefore, the correct matching pronoun is “it.” Mentally substitute “it” for “she,” and watch the sentence fall into place.
There’s a long-standing convention of referring to certain inanimate objects as “she,” and in certain cases this is so well established that you may follow it in your writing (such as in the case of ships, for example). Be aware if you do so, however, that this practice is not gender-sensitive, and it may offend some readers. Also, avoid pronoun mismatching that springs from colloquial or regional dialect, as in “She’s going to up and rain on us by nightfall, I reckon.” In this case, “she” is used in place of the more conventional “it,” which takes the place of “the weather.”
Here are some hints to help you navigate the perilous waters of pronoun agreements.
1. Know your pronoun cases. Just as verbs have different tenses, pronouns have different cases; they change their form according to their grammatical function in a sentence. Pronouns can be “nominative” (used as a subject: I, you); “possessive” (used to show ownership: mine, yours); “objective” (used as an object: me, you); or “reflexive” (referring back to the subject: myself, yourself.) It’s less important that you remember these terms than that you understand how to use the different cases.
- The boss, he went to the supply cabinet, since no one else would do it.
- The ball hit Parvis and I both.
- The boss himself went to the supply cabinet, since no one else would do it.
- The ball hit Parvis and me both.
2. Be able to recognize indefinite pronouns and use them correctly. The most familiar pronouns are the “personal pronouns,” like “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “we,” and “they.” However, there are also many “indefinite pronouns,” which are used to refer to unspecified people or things in a sentence. Often, indefinite pronouns express an idea of quantity. Some examples of indefinite pronouns are: “all,” “each,” “most,” “either,” “several,” “everybody,” “nobody,” “some,” “many,” “somebody,” “someone,” “such.”
- We every got a tiny Christmas bonus.
- Either Jim, Ringo, or Lourdes will have to take a fall.
- We each got a tiny Christmas bonus.
- Either Jim or Ringo will have to take a fall.
- Jim, Ringo, or Lourdes will have to take a fall.
3. With verbs in gerund form, use a possessive pronoun. The “gerund” form of a verb looks like this: “being,” “going,” “accounting.” When you want to place a pronoun in front of a verb in this form, use a possessive pronoun rather than an objective pronoun.
- Me going to the race tracks is becoming a problem in our relationship.
- My going to the race tracks is becoming a problem in our relationship.
Note: This rule does not hold when the pronoun follows a verb like "see," "hear," or "watch." In that case, use the objective form of the pronoun: “She sees me going to the race track every week.”
4. Do not use the relative pronoun “that” to refer to a person. Relative pronouns are words like “that,” “who,” “whom,” and “which.” It’s become fairly common to use “that” to refer to a person, but to do so is incorrect. Use the correct form of “who” instead.
- The advertising executive that bought me lunch is sitting right over there.
- The advertising executive who bought me lunch is sitting right over there.
5. Use the relative pronoun “who” as the subject of a sentence; use “whom” as the object. The subject of a sentence is the person or thing that performs an action; the object is the person or thing that receives an action. You should use “who” when you are describing someone who is doing something; use “whom” when you are describing someone who is having something done to him or her. (See the Troublesome Words and Phrases page for other tips on choosing “who” or “whom.”)
- To who it may concern: (Is the “who” performing any action here? No—it’s the object of the preposition “to”; therefore, it should be “whom.”)
- Whom is the person responsible for this catastrophe? (Is the “whom” receiving an action here? No, it’s the subject of the verb “is”; therefore, it should be “who.”)
- To whom it may concern…
- Who is the person responsible for this catastrophe?
6. You should avoid using personal pronouns in formal essay writing; if you do use them, be sure that they agree. Personal pronouns like “I, you, we, us” are considered too casual for formal essay writing. You may, however, use them in informal essays or letters or when the context of your writing calls for you to directly address your reader or make direct reference to yourself or your actions. If you choose to use “one” to replace “you,” be sure to use “one” throughout. Don’t switch to “you”—the two pronouns are not interchangeable.
- If one wants to get ahead in advertising, you must be ruthless.
- If one wants to get ahead in advertising, one must be ruthless.
7. Do not use the plural personal pronoun to refer to a singular, gendered noun. In order to avoid gender-specific language, many writers use the pronoun “they,” when referring to a hypothetical singular noun, like “the applicant,” or “the employee.” While this is admirably intended, it’s still bad grammar. However, your other choices are not much better. The best option is to rephrase the sentence, usually by making the singular noun plural. If this option isn’t possible, you may use “he or she.” It’s awkward, but it makes sense grammatically. Avoid using slashes: “she/he” or “s/he.” They’re eye-catching and casual, and inappropriate for formal writing.
- The successful applicant will be hard-working and motivated, and they will have several years’ experience with corner lemonade stands.
- Successful applicants will be hard-working and motivated, and they will have several years’ experience with corner lemonade stands.
- Successful applicants will be hard-working and motivated, and will have several years’ experience with corner lemonade stands.
- The successful applicant will be hard-working and motivated, and he or she will have several years’ experience with corner lemonade stands.
8. Use the singular, neutral pronoun to refer to a company or corporation. It may be tempting to refer to a company in the plural, as “they,” especially when you are describing some action that the company has performed. However, a company is a singular, gender-free entity and must be referred to as “it.” You can use “they” when you want to refer more specifically to some group of individuals within the company, such as management or accountants. If you do so, be sure to name the individuals you’re talking about.
- DandyCorp is in big trouble; if they don’t do something quickly, they could be on the block in a few days.
- DandyCorp is in big trouble; if it doesn’t do something quickly, it could be on the block in a few days.
- DandyCorp is in big trouble; if company owner Guy Rich doesn’t do something quickly, the company could be on the block in a few days.
A parallel structure refers to a series of phrases or clauses within a sentence; whenever you have such a series, you must make sure that all parts of it are consistent with one another, or parallel.
Here’s an example of a sentence that uses parallel structure:
- This morning I have filed my taxes, painted my fingernails, and learned to play the kazoo.
Notice that the auxiliary verb “have” in the first phrase does not need to be repeated with each verb that follows in the parallel structure. If the structure is consistent, readers can mentally carry that “have” over to the other two clauses, and the whole sentence will make sense.
Parallel structures are a simple and elegant way of listing phrases in a sentence. They economize on words (you don't have to keep repeating “I have,” for instance) and they communicate a great deal of information accurately and well.
Whenever one of the phrases or clauses in the sentence differs substantially from the others, the parallel structure is knocked off course. If this happens, the reader may become frustrated and confused from trying to piece together the true meaning of the words in the sentence. Here are some hints to help keep parallel structures together, so their meaning is clear and easy to understand.
1. Make sure that verbs are consistent throughout the parallel structure.
What this means: Verb tenses and forms are the most common culprits in off-course parallel structures. If your parallel structure employs the auxiliary verb “have” or “has,” make sure that each verb in the structure agrees with that auxiliary. Be especially careful with irregular verbs, like “to be” and “to go.”
- She has eaten her lunch, paid her bill, and went back to school for her 1:30 class. (Notice the shift in verb from “has eaten” and “has paid” to…”has went”? Clearly, this is the wrong form of the verb.)
- She has eaten her lunch, paid her bill, and gone back to school for her 1:30 class.
2. You should use articles EITHER with every item in a series, OR only with the first. Articles are words like “the,” “an,” “a.” (See the Parts of Speech page for more information.) If your parallel structure includes articles, they should be repeated in front of every phrase or clause in the structure, or else dropped after the first phrase or clause.
- Do you want the goldenrod, the saffron, butter, daylily, or ochre copy paper?
- Do you want the goldenrod, the saffron, the butter, the daylily, or the ochre copy paper?
- Do you want the goldenrod, saffron, butter, daylily, or ochre copy paper?
3. Correlative conjunctions should be followed by the same grammatical structure. Correlative conjunctions are words like “both…and,” “not only…but also,” and “either…or.” If you have these words in your sentence, you must be sure that the phrases or clauses that follow them are parallel.
- The visiting lecturer’s talk was both a boring one and totally irrelevant.
- It’s not a time for clear thinking but panic!
- The visiting lecturer’s talk was both boring and totally irrelevant.
- It’s not a time for clear thinking, but for panic!
4. Prepositions, like articles, should be the same for each item in the series. Prepositions are works like “on,” “at,” “before,” “above,” “below.” (See the Parts of Speech page for more information.) If your parallel structure includes prepositions, they should be repeated in front of every noun in the structure, or else dropped after the first noun.
- Do you want to go to the store, at the movies, or to the park?
- Do you want to go to the store, to the movies, or to the park?
- Do you want to go to the store, the movies, or the park?
Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns. (See the Parts of Speech page for more information.) You use pronouns to keep your reader from getting bored by seeing the same nouns over and over again:
- Lewis said that Lewis wanted to go to business school because Lewis had always been interested in money, and Lewis was good with numbers.
With pronouns, the sentence is much easier to read:
- Lewis said that he wanted to go to business school because he had always been interested in money, and he was good with numbers.
Whenever you use a pronoun, it is taking the place of a noun that is implied but which isn’t convenient to include at the moment. The noun that the pronoun is replacing is called the “antecedent.” In this case, Lewis is the antecedent for the pronoun “he.” Every time you read “he,” your memory says, “Lewis,” because the sentence introduced Lewis clearly at the beginning, and he’s the only person the “he” could refer to.
But if you hadn’t introduced Lewis, your memory would tell you nothing—“he” would mean no one in particular, or at least no one we know.
- He said that he wanted to go to business school because he had always been interested in money, and he was good with numbers.
Who is “he”? In this case, there’s no clear antecedent for the pronoun “he”— it could be talking about Bill Gates or the Prince of Wales.
Furthermore, if the sentence introduces two or more people instead of just Lewis, we would have no way of knowing which one of them was the “he” in question:
- Lewis and Gregory both want to go to business school; he has always been interested in money, and he is good with numbers.
Who’s the “he” in question—are we talking about Lewis, or Gregory, or someone else altogether? Again, there’s no clear antecedent for the “he” in this sentence. You may decide to use the proper noun again to avoid confusion or rewrite the sentence to make the meaning more clear.
A common antecedent problem is the use of “this” without an accompanying noun, especially at the beginning of a sentence. Many people try to use “this” as a transitional word between sentences, but without an accompanying noun, the meaning can be unclear. For example:
- Brainstorming is a crucial component of creating business strategy. This is the important first step in creating a strong business plan.
The writer means “this” to refer to “brainstorming,” but without an accompanying noun, the meaning gets muddy, because it can also refer to “creating business strategy.” If you remember that “this” always takes an accompanying noun, your meaning will always be clear.
- Brainstorming is a crucial component of creating business strategy. This technique is important in creating a strong business plan.
To fix unclear antecedents, you need to make the relationship between the noun and its representative pronoun clear in some way. How you will accomplish this task depends on the sentence you are writing, but there are three methods you can try:
1. Insert a helper noun. This method is probably the simplest way to fix an unclear antecedent, because all you have to do is stick another word in the sentence. In order to make the meaning of your “this” or “that” clearer, you can add a helper noun to define the pronoun.
- Unclear antecedent: The photocopy machine is buzzing, the phones are ringing, and someone is knocking at the door; this is driving me crazy! (What does the “this” refer to—the buzzing, ringing, knocking, or all three?)
- Clear antecedent: The photocopy machine is buzzing, the phones are ringing, and someone is knocking at the door; this turmoil is driving me crazy! (The sentence clearly refers to all three.)
2. Replace the pronoun with a noun. Sometimes an antecedent is unclear not because it might be confused with something else in the sentence, but because it’s simply not there in the first place. In this case, you should replace the pronoun with an appropriate noun.
- Unclear antecedent: While atomic waste products are hard to dispose of safely, it remains a reasonable alternative to burning fossil fuels to produce electricity. (What is the “it” in question? Atomic waste products aren’t a reasonable alternative to fossil fuels—something else is being referred to.)
- Clear antecedent: While atomic waste products are hard to dispose of safely, nuclear power remains a reasonable alternative to burning fossil fuels to produce electricity. (The vague pronoun “it” is replaced with a clear and specific noun.)
Note: Avoid using the pronouns “it” and “they” without antecedents, to describe people or things in general. Fix this construction by replacing the pronoun with a noun.
- Unclear antecedent: In New York they talk much faster than they do in DeKalb.
- Clear antecedent: New Yorkers talk much faster than people from DeKalb.
3. Revise the sentence. Many times, the best possible fix for an unclear antecedent is to rewrite the whole sentence, such as when an unclear antecedent has made a sentence awkward or vice versa. Obviously, you will have to decide on the exact revision yourself, but you can refer to the Avoiding long or awkward sentences page for some more guiding principles.
- Unclear antecedent: A secure job, a decent wage, and a lot of adoring attention: this is what I want. (What does the “this” refer to? A secure job, a decent wage, a lot of adoring attention, or all three? You could fix this sentence by adding a helper noun of some kind, but it would still be awkward. So you should revise the whole sentence instead.)
- Clear antecedent: I want a secure job, a decent wage, and a lot of adoring attention. (Starting with the subject clears up a lot of the confusion over the object of the sentence—now we can assume that the author wants all three things. The vague pronoun “this” has disappeared completely, and the sentence is much more fluid.)
A dangling participle (also known as a “misplaced modifier”) refers to a participial phrase that is modifying the wrong noun. For instance:
- Walking home yesterday, a tree nearly fell on me.
If we apply strict logic to this sentence, it means that the tree was walking back home: we assume the subject of the independent clause (here, “a tree”) to be the subject of a phrase attached to the main clause. In other words, the participial phrase set off by the comma is meant to modify the noun that immediately follows the comma. “Walking home” is set up to modify “a tree” according to the sentence’s internal logic, but “walking home” really refers to “me.” The participle “dangles” because the noun it’s modifying isn’t in the right place in the sentence.
Dangling participles are not considered acceptable in standard English, so you should avoid them in writing. Recast offending sentences so that the subject of the attached phrase is clear. Often that change is as simple as putting the noun into the participial phrase:
- As I was walking back home yesterday, a tree nearly fell on my head.
- If the cover is properly secured, you shouldn't be able to remove it.