Verb number and agreement

This post assumes you’re comfortable with the basis of verb-subject agreement and focuses instead on a quick review plus special cases that often trip people up. For a basic refresher on the topic, visit https://webapps.towson.edu/ows/moduleSVAGR.htm or https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/599/01/.

Person

A verb’s person shows whether the act, state, or condition is that of:

(1) the person speaking (first person: I or we),
(2) the person spoken to (second person: you), or
(3) the person spoken of (third person: he, she, it, or they).

Number

The number of a verb must agree with the number of the noun or pronoun used with it. In other words, the verb must be singular or plural.

The following rules apply to regular verbs (as opposed to irregular verbs such as “to be”).

  • The first-person verb is always singular in form, whether one person or more than one person is speaking {I eat custard pies, we eat custard pies}.
     
  • The second-person verb is always plural in form, whether one person or more than one person is spoken to {you ate that pie all by yourself, you ate that pie all by yourselves}.
     
  • Only verbs in the third person (in most cases) change form to indicate number and person {I bake, we bake, you bake, they bake, but she bakes}.

Agreement in person and number

  • A finite verb agrees with its subject in person and number.
     
  • When a verb has two or more subjects connected by and, it agrees with them jointly and is plural {Socrates and Plato were wise}.
     
  • When a verb has two or more singular subjects connected by or or nor it is singular {Jill or Jan is prepared to speak, neither Bob nor John has learned his lesson}.
     
  • When the subject is a collective noun conveying the idea of unity or multitude, the verb is singular {the nation is powerful}.
     
  • When the subject is a collective noun conveying the idea of plurality, the verb is plural {the faculty were divided in their sentiments.}.”
     

False attraction to predicate nominative

“A plural predicate nominative after a singular subject may mislead a writer by suggesting a plural verb. When this occurs, the simple correction of changing the number of the verb may make the sentence awkward, and the better approach then is to rework the sentence:”

WRONG: My downfall are sweets.
RIGHT: My downfall is sweets.
BETTER: Sweets are my downfall.

Misleading connectives: “as well as,” “along with,” “together with,” and so forth

“Adding to a singular subject by using phrasal connectives such as along with, as well as, in addition to, together with, and the like does not make the subject plural. This type of distraction can be doubly misleading because the intervening material seems to create a compound subject, and the modifying prepositional phrase may itself contain one or more plural objects. If the singular verb sounds awkward in such a sentence, it may be better to use the conjunction and instead:”

WRONG: The bride as well as her bridesmaids were dressed in mauve.
RIGHT: The bride as well as her bridesmaids was dressed in mauve.
BETTER: The bride and her bridesmaids were dressed in mauve.

(From Chicago 16, 5.129 through 5.133)

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Using “that” and “which”

That and which have distinct uses.

That introduces a restrictive clause, that is, the information in that clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Which introduces a nonrestrictive clause—the information in that clause is not essential to the meaning of the sentence—and therefore should be preceded by a comma. For example, in He supports programs that encourage young people, the “that” clause specifies what kinds of programs he supports. But in She supports Habitat for Humanity, which constructs houses for low-income buyers, the “which” clause adds incidental information—the information is nonessential to the main thrust of the sentence.

IF THE PREVIOUS PARAGRAPH MADE YOUR HEAD SPIN, JUST GO BY THIS: “If you see a which without a comma before it, nine times out of ten it needs to be a that. The one other time, it needs a comma. Your choice, then, is between comma-which and that. Use that whenever you can.” A LITTLE MORE GUIDANCE: “First, if you cannot omit the clause without changing the basic meaning, the clause is restrictive; use that without a comma. Second, if you can omit the clause without changing the basic meaning, the clause is nonrestrictive; use a comma plus which. Third, if you ever find yourself using a which that doesn't follow a comma, it probably needs to be a that.”

Questions in text

Indirect question

An indirect question never takes a question mark. (Chicago 16, 6.52)

He wondered whether it was worth the risk.


Indirect one-word question

When a question within a sentence consists of a single word, such as “who,” “when,” “how,” or “why,” a question mark may be omitted, and the word is sometimes italicized. (Chicago 16, 6.68)

She asked herself why.

The question was no longer how but when.


Comma with questions

A direct question included within another sentence is usually introduced by a comma. A direct question may take an initial capital letter if it is relatively long or has internal punctuation.

He asked himself, where am I headed?
The question on everyone's mind was, how are we going to tell her?
Legislators had to be asking themselves, Can the fund be used for the current emergency, or must it remain dedicated to its original purpose?

If the result seems awkward, rephrase as an indrect question. An indirect question may take an initial capital letter if it is relatively long or has initial punctuation. (Chicago 16, 6.52)

He asked himself where he was headed.

The question of how to tell her was on everyone's mind.

Ursula wondered why her watch had stopped ticking.

Where to find a reliable clock is the question of the hour.


Exclamation rather then question

A sentence in the form of a direct question can often be styled as an exclamation simply by using an exclamation point rather than a question mark. (Chicago 16, 6.72)

How could you possibly believe that!

When will I ever learn!

Lists

For lists in running text, use a comma after the second-to-last item:

Lawyers, guns, and money. Lawyers, guns, or money.

Use a bulleted list to make a long list of short items easier to read. However, don't overuse bulleted or numbered lists; too many lists on a page can create visual confusion.

Format a bulleted list as follows:

  • The introductory phrase should end with a colon.
  • Each list item begins with a capital letter.
  • List items should have no punctuation, unless they are complete sentences.
  • Indent each bulleted item.

Commas or semicolons at the end of list items is not necessary.

Avoid using bullets if the bulleted items will include multiple complete sentences.

Whenever possible, try not to break bulleted lists or the list items themselves across columns or pates.

Headlines and titles

Hyphenation

When a hyphenated word appears in a title (or a headline that usues a traditional title style (that is, all words are capitalized with few exceptions), capitalize both parts of the word: A Best-Case Scenario; not A Best-case Scenario; A Two-Day Program.


Capitalization

The only words that should not be capitalized in headlines and titles are:

  • “To” in infinitives (the infinitive is the verb form that starts with “to,” e.g., to be, to run, to work)
  • Articles: the, a, an
  • Coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet
  • Prepositions of four or fewer letters: with, by, for, of —but not against


Italics vs. quotation marks

Titles of major or freestanding works such as books, journals, movies, and paintings should be set in italics. Species names and names of legal cases should also be set in italics.

Quotation marks are usually used for the titles of subsections of larger works, including chapter and article titles and titles of poems that have been collected into a series.

Some titles (such as that of a book series or a website under which any number of works or documents may be collected) are neither set in italics nor enclosed in quotation marks. (Chicago 16, 8.2)


Words after colons

The word after a colon should always be capitalized, even if it is one of the words listed above. Always capitalize the first and last words in a title.

Using “earth”

In nontechnical contexts the word “earth,” in the sense of our planet, is usually lowercased when preceded by the or in such idioms as “down to earth” or “move heaven and earth.” When used as the proper name of our planet, especially in context with other planets, it is capitalized, and “the” is usually omitted. (chicago 16, 8.139, p.443)

Some still believe the earth is flat.
The gender accorded to the moon, the sun, and the earth varies in different mythologies.
Where on earth have you been?
The astronauts have returned successfully to Earth.
Does Mars, like Earth, have an atmosphere?

Abbreviations and acronyms

When to use abbreviations

In general, abbreviations are most appropriate in tabular matter, notes, bibliographies, and parenthetical references.To the greatest extent possible, abbreviations should be kept out of running text, except in technical matter.

Even in regular prose, a number of expressions are almost always abbreviated and may be used without first spelling them out. (Many of these will be listed as main entries of the latest edition of Webster's.) For example: DNA, GPS, HMO, HTML, IQ, JPEG, laser, Ms., NASA.

Others, though in more or less common use (CGI, FDA, HVAC, MLA) should generally be spelled out at the first occurrence — at least in formal text — as a courtesy to those readers who might not easily recognize them.

The use of less familiar abbreviations should be limited to those terms that occur frequently enough to warrant abbreviation — roughly five times or more within the article or chapter — and the terms must be spelled out on their first occurrence.

“a” or “an” before an acronym

When choosing between “a” and “an” before an acronym that is articulated letter by letter (that is, an anagram such as “UPS” as opposed to “NASA,” which is articulated as a word), consider how the first letter sounds when said out loud. For example: a USDA spokesperson but an EPA spokesperson.

General abbreviations (etc., e.g., i.e.)

General abbreviations such as etc., e.g., and i.e. are preferably confined to parenthetical references and used only when necessary.

i.e. and e.g. The first is the abbreviation for id est (“that is”); the second is the abbreviation for exempli gratia (“for example”). English equivalents are preferable in formal prose; Chicago style is to use these two-character abbreviations only within parentheses or in notes. Always put a comma after either of them. (Chicago 16, 5.220, p.284)

State abbreviations

Always spell out the names of states when they stand alone in text, and preferably (except for DC) when following the name of a city: She works at a coffee shop in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Use the two-letter postal codes (listed below) in bibliographies, tables, lists, or when providing a party affiliation.

State Abbreviation
Alabama AL
Alaska AK
Arizona AZ
Arkansas AR
California CA
Colorado CO
Connecticut CT
Delaware DE
Florida FL
Georgia GA
Hawaii HI
Idaho ID
Illinois IL
Indiana IN
Iowa IA
Arizona AZ
Kansas KS
Kentucky KY
Louisiana LA
Maine ME
Maryland MD
Massachusetts MA
Michigan MI
Minnesota MN
Mississippi MS
Missouri MO
Montana MT
Nebraska NE
Nevada NV
New Hampshire NH
New Jersey NJ
New Mexico NM
New York NY
North Carolina NC
North Dakota ND
Ohio OH
Oklahoma OK
Oregon OR
Pennsylvania PA
Rhode Island RI
South Carolina SC
South Dakota SD
Tennessee TN
Texas TX
Utah UT
Vermont VT
Virginia VA
Washington WA
West Virginia WV
Wisconsin WI
Wyoming WY