‘A’ is for Agreement

LetterAI have decided to go through the alphabet of grammar, starting with (of course) ‘A’. AGREEMENT is one of a number of English grammar terms that only English teachers, editors and serious writers will know well. However, it is an important aspect of grammar that ensures that singular nouns “agree” with singular pronouns, plural nouns with plural pronouns, and similarly subjects “agree” with their verbs. Let me begin with noun and pronoun agreement.

It is simple to say The woman took some money out of her purse. The noun woman agrees with the pronoun her, as both are singular. But consider the following example: The average Australian likes to watch his or her sport. The unspecified gender means the writer is obliged to use a clumsy his or her for agreement, but often writers will go against agreement and put their instead. This is ungrammatical, but one way around it is to use the plural noun instead, resulting in The average Australians like to watch their sport. 

Another grey area arises with collective nouns such as the name of a team, and words such as flock, crowd and so on. Usually, they are treated as singular entities and therefore take singular pronouns and verbs in agreement. However, if the writer wishes to point out actions of the individuals in the group, a plural agreement may be used. But you would not say The crowd made his or her objections known. Rather you would put The crowd made its objections known, or it would be allowable to put The crowd made their objections known if there were varying objections among individuals in the crowd.

Singular subjects must also take singular verbs, and plural subjects take plural verbs. The words every, everyone, none and each are treated as singular and therefore take singular verbs, although the exception is none where the object of the sentence will determine whether a singular or plural verb is used. For example: None of the dogs have spots or None of the dogs has a spot.

The singular agreement rule also applies when you use either/or, neither/nor and or when there is a comparison made between two singular subjects.

For this blog on Agreement, I referred to Clear Writing — A guide to current grammar and usage by Carol Manners.