On the Same Page: Subject and Verb Agreement

subject-verbEver since you were very little, you have known, or at least felt, that the subject of a sentence needs to agree with its predicate — with its verb, really — in person and number. This is not a very hard problem, since most English verbs change only in the third person singular. For example, “to have” is “have” for “I,” “you” (singular and plural), “we,” and “they.” It becomes “has” only for “he,” “she” and “it.” In the past tense, it’s all “had.” That is not very hard at all.

The verb “to be” takes it up a notch, as it changes more often: “are” for “you” (singular and plural) as well as “we” and “they“; “am” for “I,” and “is” for “he,” “she” and “it.” In the past, it is “was” in the singular and “were” in the plural. Every once in a while you will hear someone say something like “How you is?” or “I is the boss.” Even so, there’s no risk of mistaking this for correct English.

How would you evaluate this one? “Jimmy and I are leaving now.” Is “… I are …” correct? If so, why?

What about this? “Either Ruth or I am going to do the cooking.” Is “ … am … ” appropriate with “Ruth or I“? (Many would say, “Either me or Ruth are going to do the cooking,” and that is really wrong — so wrong that it makes you feel bad for the utterer.)

Here’s the story on verb agreement when you have more than one subject (technically, we call them “compound subjects“):

First: Remember that the order of persons in a series is (1) third person, then (2) second person, then (3) first person. Example: “Your brother, you and I will be riding together.” If you put the first person or the second person in the wrong place, it can mislead you to use the wrong form of the verb. Plus, it’s wrong.

Conjoint subjects are always plural

Second: When you have a conjoint compound subject — meaning that it’s inclusive (using “and“) rather than exclusive (using “or“), the subject must, obviously, be plural. Why? Because there’s more than one actor. Thus, you must use a plural verb form. In English, the plural forms are the same for first, second and third person, so there’s no agony of choice here. “Plural” is all you need to know. Examples: “Maggie, Millie, Molly and May went down to the sea to play one day” (all third person); “Maggie, Millie, Molly and I went down to the sea to play” (third and first); “Maggie, Millie, Molly and you went down to the sea to play” (third and second). It’s all the same, and it does not matter whether you are using the present tense, the past tense, the future tense, or a perfect tense. Conjoint compound subjects are easy: the verb is always in the plural.

Seashells on beach with one apart from the others.
Disjoint can be singular or plural, one or more than one.

Third: When you have a disjoint compound subject, that is, one that uses “or,” the verb must agree with the last subject mentioned. Therefore, “Either Ruth or I am going to do the cooking” is correct. So also is: “Green beans or spinach is what we will make.” Conversely, this is correct, too: “Spinach or green beans are what we will make.”

That’s all there is to this subject. Really, it is easy until you get to point three, and then you will have to do a little thinking. But that’s OK; thinking is good for you: It makes you smarter.



Using Gerunds Correctly

The title of this post gives an example of a gerund: It is a verb form ending in “-ing” and used as a noun. It is identical to the present participle, but its use as a noun makes it a gerund, not a participle.

Another post mentions the tendency in some regions of this Country to use the form of the past participle instead, as in “the floor needs washed.” The floor may need a scrubbing, but what the verb needs is a noun, a direct object. Past participles do not meet that requirement; however, gerunds and infinitives do.

Not every verb form ending in “-ing” is a gerund, but all gerunds end in “-ing.” Sometimes a present participle will be used as an adjective (as in “stalking horse” and “walking stick”). Present participles are used mainly as parts of the verb (with an auxiliary verb — “to be”). They form the progressive tense. (Examples: “They are talking” and “The queen was nodding off”) In all events, if the verb form ending in “-ing” is used as a noun, it is a gerund.

This post is not about when to use a gerund, but rather about an important rule to apply once you decide to put one to work: Gerunds require a possessive adjective and not a pronoun. What does that mean? Consider this sentence:

lucy complainingI’m tired of Lucy’s complaining.

Many people will say that correctly. A few might say, “I’m tired of Lucy complaining,” which is wrong. It simply makes good sense that what you are tired of is “complaining” and not “Lucy.” Whose complaining is it? Lucy’s. That is why the possessive is always used with a gerund. This possessive is an adjective, answering the question, “whose?”

Where things go astray, when they do, is the substitution of a pronoun for the noun in a sentence like the one above. Suppose it was Linus, not Lucy, who was complaining:

I’m tired of his complaining.

Many people say “I’m tired of him complaining.” That is just as much a mistake as the example above with the proper noun, “Lucy.” Just remember, “him complaining” is stringing a pronoun and a noun together, as if the verb had two direct objects, and the listener has to choose which one of them to accept: Are you tired of “him,” or are you tired of “complaining“? For the sake of clarity, what you need is a possessive adjective. Notice that, for females, there’s no problem, as the possessive adjective (“her”) is the same as the objective personal pronoun (“her”).

This situation becomes even worse when the pronoun in question is not in the third person, but rather in the first or second person: “I hope you are not tired of my complaining” or “I am not yet tired of your complaining.” It is so easy to slip into the wrong usage: “tired of me complaining” or “tired of you complaining.

Just remember: the gerund always takes the possessive. It’s that simple.

Problematic Verbs

Some of the irregular verbs in English give trouble to speakers who:

  • have learned English as a second language, or
  • grew up surrounded by English speakers who did not know how to speak correctly.

Most of the irregularities deal with the formation of the simple past tense or the past participle of strong verbs. (See “Strong Verbs and Weak Verbs” for a definition of these terms.)

  • sneak
    Sneaked or Snuck?

    Past Tense: An example of incorrect formation of the past tense comes from the verb “sneak.” It is not unusual to hear someone say “snuck” rather than “sneaked.” “Snuck” is, and always has been, wrong; but its wide usage, especially in recent times by the uneducated, has led it to sound “normal” and even to verge on being accepted as having graduated from its long-standing status as a solecism. “Stick,” on the other hand, is properly formed in the past tense as “stuck,” and “sticked” would be wrong.

  • Past Participle: An example of incorrect formation of the past participle comes from the verb “lie.” (For more on this most problematic verb, go to Lay versus Lie.) The past participle is “lain,” but surely only a tiny minority of Americans would ask (correctly) “Have you lain in bed all day?” instead of (incorrectly) “Have you laid in bed all day?” (Hint: “laid” is the wrong verb. “Lay” must have a direct object, as in “Have you laid brick for the wall?“)

    Have you laid brick?

Wake” is another example. The long-standing past tense form is “woke,” and the participle is “woken.” But the wrong forms, “waked” (past) and “waked” (participle), have come into such wide use that they verge on acceptability. The verb “awaken” (meaning to wake up) suffers from the same problem: “She awoke at the sound of rain.“) and “awoken” as a past participle (“She has awoken.“) But “awaked” and “awaked” are increasingly accepted forms for the simple past and the past participle.

In fairness, English seems almost capricious in how some of these problematic verbs are formed. Some forms simply have to be memorized or repeated over and over until they come naturally. The past tense of “shrink,” for example, is “shrank,” and the past tense of “stink” is “stank,” but the past tense of “think” is “thought” and the past tense of “blink” is “blinked”!

At the end of this post is a list of 91 irregular verbs. Skim it and see if you find any surprises.

One other aspect of irregularities in verbs deserves mention, though you probably have never had a problem with it, nor even noticed it: Modal verbs (those which indicate likelihood, ability, permission, and obligation) do not add “-s” or “-es” in the third person singular, as do all (or maybe almost all) of the other verbs in English. These “modal verbs” are: “can/could,” “may/might,” “must,” “will/would,” “shall/should” and “ought” + an infinitive. This is a curious sort of exception, but an exception nonetheless.

StemSimple PastPast Participle
bewas, werebeen
getgotgot/ gotten


Strong Verbs and Weak Verbs

"I eated it all!"
“I eated it all!”

Ever see a toddler proudly show off her empty bowl? She might say, “I eated it all!” As a new learner of English, she is making a common, understandable and forgivable mistake:

The usual rule for creating a past tense in English is to add “-ed” or “-d” to the verb stem. (Linguists call this a “dental suffix” because the “d” sound is made with the tongue against the teeth; “-t” is another dental suffix that forms past tenses.) (Examples: flow/flowed/flowed; burn/burnt/burnt)

On the other hand, many verbs do not create the past tense by adding something; rather, they change a vowel sound in the verb stem itself (and sometimes a consonant with it). (Example: hang/hung/hung; stand/stood/stood) Sometimes, they make no changes at all (e.g., “put/put/put“).

weakWe use the term “weak verbs” to describe verbs that form their past tense (and their past participle) by adding to the stem. (Think of it this way: they are so weak that they need the help of one or more outside letters to form their past tense.)

strongWe use the term “strong verbs” to describe verbs that form their past tense by changing internally. (They do not need any outside help.) Past participles can vary: some add “-n” or “-en” to the past tense (as in “break/broke/broken“); some just use the past tense without change (as in “wind/wound/wound“); others pick up the original stem vowel again (as in “slay/slew/slain“); and still others go off in their own direction with a new vowel sound (as in “fly/flew/flown” and “ring/rang/rung“).

Germanic languages, of which English is one, often use strong verbs; that is, they form the simple past by making a change in the vowel of the stem. All our strong verbs in English come originally from Germanic roots, rather than from our Norman French ancestor.

Note: Not every authority uses the same definition for “weak” and “strong.” Consider the verb “bring.” The past tense is “brought,” which has a stem vowel change and the addition of a letter (in this case, “-t”). Under the definitions above, “bring” could be a strong verb; however, many consider it a weak verb because it needs the help of the final “-t.” Others use the term “mixed verb” because it has elements of each category. Whatever you decide to do, it will be all right; these categories are merely descriptive, and whether you put them in one group or another will have no consequences for speaking correct English. The fundamental point is that strong verbs tend to be trickier (that is, less predictable) than weak verbs.

Here is a selection of common strong verbs. Certainly you will be able to think of many others:

Strong Verbs

StemSimple PastPast Participle
Bear (give birth)BoreBorn
Bear (carry)BoreBorne
BindBoundBound (or Bounden)
GiveGave Given
ShineShone Shone

Some teachers call these “irregular verbs,” meaning that only weak verbs that form the past tense with “-ed” and form the past participle in the same way are “regular verbs.” For them, all the other verbs are “irregular” because they fail to follow this rule (which is what “irregular” means, technically). It is probably better to hold onto the “strong verb” category, as these verbs are (in the main) regular in other respects, once the changes for the simple past and the past participle have been acknowledged. This leaves the “irregular” category for truly maverick verbs, like “be/was/been” and “go/went/gone.”

Here is a smattering of weak verbs. Most verbs in English are weak, so it is not hard to think of them.

Weak Verbs

StemSimple PastPast Participle

Tip: Every once in a while you will hear someone counsel you to use “strong verbs,” meaning that you should select precise, communicative verbs, rather than weak, vague, boring, wordy and overused verbs. Surely, that is good advice. But it is not what “strong verb” means. We are also counseled from time-to-time not to use “strong language,” and that is also good advice. But “strong language” also has nothing to do with “strong verbs.”


Who/Whom and Whoever

This Rule Should Be Easy

who-whomJust as the “I/me” confusion sometimes causes speakers to overcompensate and use “I” even when “me” is called for, so also do speakers, in an effort to sound knowledgeable, use “whom” at times when “who” is the right choice. This should be easy:

  • Who” is like “I.” It is the nominative form of a pronoun — a relative pronoun or an interrogative pronoun — used for subjects and predicate nouns/pronouns:

    Relative pronoun: The spy who came in from the cold wrote a book.
    Interrogative pronoun: Who was that masked man?

  • Whom” is like “me.” It is the accusative or objective form of a pronoun, used for objects of verbs and prepositions.

    Relative pronoun: The person whom I most admire is Ghandi.
    Interrogative pronoun: Whom do you most admire?

The only tricky part is correctly diagnosing a nominative use or an objective use.

  • First: “Who” and “Whom” introduce what are called “relative clauses.” That is why they are called “relative pronouns.” A relative clause is a subordinate clause: it cannot stand alone, but requires being linked to an independent clause in order to make sense. “Who” and “whomrelate the content of their clause to a specific person in the independent clause. They serve to identify persons in the same way that the relative pronoun “which” identifies things. But the nominative form of “which” is the same as the objective form, so there’s no problem of choice.
  • Second: “Who” and “whom” are also “interrogative pronouns” when used in questions. The rules are the same, whether they are used to relate clauses to nouns or pronouns, or whether they are used to form questions.
  • "Never send to know For whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." -- Donne
    “Never send to know
    For whom the bell tolls;
    It tolls for thee.” — Donne

    Third: If the person in the independent clause who is being described by the “who” or “whom” is the subject or a predicate noun, then “who” is correct. If it is an object (either of the clause or of a preposition), then “whom” is correct. Test this by answering the “who/whom” question (or completing the “who/whom” statement) with “he” or “she“: If “he” or “she” is correct, then “who” is your answer. If it turns out that “him” or “her” is correct, then “whom” is your answer. Example: “For who/whom the bell tolls.” Answer: It tolls for him. OK: Use “whom.”

  • Fourth: If the “who/whom” question arises as the object of a preposition, “whom” is always the right choice. But be careful: If the object of the preposition is some other noun or pronoun, and the “who/whom” element is the subject of a clause that describes that object, then “who” is the correct choice. That is because “who” (in that case) is not the object of the preposition (some other noun or pronoun is), but rather, it is the subject of its own clause. Examples: I gave the gifts to whom I wished; I gave the gifts to those who asked for them.
  • Fifth: The very same rules apply to “whoever” and “whomever.” Examples: “Invite whomever you wish.” (“whomever” is the object of the verb “invite“); “Whoever arrives first will win the door prize.”  (“whoever” is the subject of the verb “arrives”).

Relative clauses are either restrictive or non-restrictive:
corsageRestrictive clauses provide enough additional information so that the hearer or reader can know precisely to whom the speaker or writer is referring. (They “restrict” or “narrow down” the possibilities to the precise one.) They are not set off with commas. Example: Take a picture of the woman who is wearing a corsage. (No comma)

Non-restrictive clauses are not necessary to identify who it is that we are discussing. They just provide extra information. They are set off with commas. Example: Take a picture of Mrs. Maxwell, who is wearing a corsage. (Comma required)

Verbs Are Moody

Indo-European languages (of which English is one) use different forms of their verbs according to what is being expressed in the sentence. Specifically, the verb form will be different if:

  • You are making an affirmation, a flat statement;
  • You are making a demand, a suggestion, or issuing a command;
  • You are expressing a doubt, a wish, hope, something hypothetical, or something contrary to fact.

moods of verbsThe verb forms used for these three categories are called “moods” of the verbs. In grammar and logic, “mood” and “mode” are both used to refer to the state of mind of the speaker. Thus “mood” refers to the manner in which the thought is expressed.

  • Affirmations and statements are made in the “indicative mood.” This is the form most often used, and you do not even have to think about it — it’s just about automatic. For example, “Joe drives too fast.”
  • Commands, suggestions and demands are made in the “imperative mood.” Examples: “Do not drive too fast!” “I suggest/demand that Joe not drive too fast!
  • Uncertain or non-existent matters (doubts, wishes, hopes, hypothetical situations and anything contrary to fact) are expressed in the “subjunctive mood.” “If only Joe were a slower driver.
frank and ernest subjunctive
The subjunctive in action

Unlike the other Indo-European languages of Western Europe, English has not maintained a clear syntax for distinguishing these three moods. For example, if you were speaking French, there would be no doubt about your intention:

  1. to indicate something, or
  2. to command someone, or
  3. to express a desire.

The verb endings would tell the whole story. English, however, has abandoned most of its verb inflections, and with that, a clear way of telling another person which mood is being used. As an English speaker, you may not even be aware that you are expressing different syntactical moods as you move from affirmation to command to wish/desire/uncertainty/non-factual matter.

A few vestiges still remain, however. In expressing a condition contrary to fact, you must use the subjunctive. The present subjunctive of “to be” is “were.” This is a different “were” from the plural past tense form. For example, Tevye’s song in Fiddler on the Roof: “If I were a rich man, all day long I’d biddy biddy bum, if I were a wealthy man. ” Notice that it is not “I was” or “I am.” It’s “I were.” That is the present subjunctive.

However plain you be, I’ll love you

In Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, Frederic (the hero) asks of a group of lovely maidens on the shore if perhaps one of them would rescue him from his fate as an apprentice to pirates. He sings, “I swear by heaven’s high arch above you, if you will cast your eyes on me, however plain you be, I’ll love you.” That is the future subjunctive: “You be.”

The reason that you, as an English-speaker, may find this business of “moods” rather astonishing is that English has gradually replaced the subjunctive and the imperative forms with what are called “modal verbs”: can/could, may/might, must, will/would, and shall/should. To express a command, demand or suggestion, for example, we use “must,” “ought to” or “should.” To express doubt or uncertainty, we use “may” or “might.” To express hypothetical actions or conditions, we use “would.” These are auxiliary verbs that do the work for the main verb, so that the special imperative and subjunctive forms become unnecessary. Note that the adjective “modal” is used in the same sense as the noun “mood” to describe the state of mind of the speaker.

This evolution away from subjunctive forms does not mean, however, that the subjunctive is extinct or vestigial. No, it is still wrong, that is, bad grammar, to say “If I was you . . . ” or “He reacted as if she has two heads.”(It should be: “If I were you . . . ” and “He reacted as if she had two heads.“)

As a general matter, remember that “were” is the correct form of “to be” to express the subjunctive in the present. (She looked as if she were ten feet tall.) In the past, use “had been.”  (“If only the Lone Ranger had been here!” — note that it is nothas been.“) For the future, use “be.” This will feel more natural if you use “may” or “might” with it. (“Who be you?“; “Who might you be?”)

For imperatives, “be” is also the correct form, as in “Be quiet!

That covers almost all of the “mood” issues that otherwise can be handled by the modal verbs.


New York Times ManualThis post must be a rapid summary of punctuation rules and practices; otherwise, we will both be here all day. If you need the full tour of all punctuation principles, use a “style manual” for reference. Newspapers, magazines and publishing houses have created such style manuals as the rules and regulations for anyone who writes copy for them. The most famous is The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook is also well-known and highly regarded. The Government Printing Office also prints one, blandly called The Government Printing Office Style Manual (usually abbreviated to “GPO”). Law journals mostly use the Uniform System of Citation published decades ago by the Harvard Law Review. While it addresses itself mainly to citation forms, it also touches on other aspects of correct usage. These authorities do not always agree with each other, but they do unanimously sanction most of the basic principles.

The Internet is an excellent source of guidance on punctuation; however, exercise caution: not everyone who uploads his opinion is uniformly correct (including yours truly, I suppose). A discerning researcher will note some inconsistencies among the various resources available. As in the case of dictionaries, some sites are more conservative, and advocate only orthodox usage; others are more liberal and will acknowledge and accept many usages even though they are mistakes, just because they are widespread. The more conservative ones should be looked to as normative: authorities; the more liberal ones should be deemed merely descriptive: catalogues of usage.

A free, online style manual that takes a traditional approach to Standard American English is the one produced by the National Geographic Society.

The Basic Concept
punctuation as decorative
Decorative Punctuation

The most basic principle, the bedrock fundamental, can be illustrated by the following anecdote: Once I was helping Manolo to study for his GED exam. Manolo was from Mexico, and his exam was to be administered in Spanish. Though fluent in his mother tongue, he needed considerable help with writing. His word choices were correct, more or less, but his spelling was, well, non-standard. Worse yet, his punctuation (including accent marks) seemed random. When asked, he confirmed that indeed it was random! He believed that accents and punctuation marks should be spread around one’s writing as decorations, in the same way that one scatters seeds in a garden plot. This is similar to the “sounds right” approach to grammar in general: It is lawless, unreliable and tragically ignorant. Fortunately, ignorance is curable, as proved true in Manolo’s case. (On the other hand, stupidity, sadly, is not.)

In short: Every punctuation mark exists for one or more reasons. Learn the reasons, and follow the rules. Do not fall into the fallacies of the “sounds good” method or the randomizing approach.

Here is a runner’s dash through the rules:


Use them for ending sentences. Use them after most abbreviations. An elipsis (…) is not a series of three periods. It is an elipsis and has its own function, which is to indicate omission.

Question Marks

question markUse them after direct questions; do not use them after indirect questions. Compare: “How old are you?” and “He asked me how old I was.

The question mark goes inside the closing quotation mark if it is part of the quotation; otherwise, it is outside the closing quotation mark: He asked, “How old are you?” versus Did you hear him say, “I am am 21 years old”?

Exclamation Points

Use them after exclamations (duh!) and all but mild interjections: “I’m lost!” “Wow!” “Sorry, I didn’t know.”

slow children
Commas matter

Commas are the most common form of punctuation (pun intended), and the most abused. This is a partial list, as commas come up in so many contexts. For a complete rundown, consult a manual of style. Use Commas:

  • To separate words in a series “(Porthos, Dartagnan, Aramis and Athos”). Note: the comma after the next to last item is usually omitted in modern texts, but it is not wrong to insert it, and it may occasionally avoid confusion (as in the following Sky News headlines summary from December 10, 2013: “Top Stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and Same-sex marriage date set”). It is called “the Oxford comma.”
  • To separate phrases in apposition (“My uncle, the judge, was always sober.”)
  • To separate introductory clauses. (“Because you asked politely, I shall do it.”)
  • To separate many, but not all, subordinating conjunctions from the rest of the dependent clause in a complex sentence. (“It snowed; however, we went anyway.” But: “I shall do it because you asked politely.”)
  • To separate coordinating conjunctions from the preceding independent clause in a compound sentence. (“She likes country, and I like rock ‘n’ roll.”)
  • In a variety of specific contexts:
    • After the salutation in an informal (friendly) letter (“Dear John,”)
    • To separate repeated words (“I really, really want a puppy!”)
    • To introduce a quotation (W.C. Fields said, “Never give a sucker an even break.”)
    • Before of after directing a statement to a person or thing (“Houston, we have a problem”; “No, Perkins.”)
    • After mild interjections (“My goodness, that was a long speech.”)

Use them to separate:

  • Independent clauses from the subordinating conjunction in a complex sentence (but not in every case). (“It snowed; however, we went anyway.” But notI like you because you never complain.”)
  • Independent clauses in a compound sentence, if there is no coordinating conjunction. (“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”)
  • Items in a series, if the items are long phrases or clauses. (“I plan to get up early; put all of last night’s dishes in the dishwasher; go shopping; make dinner for everybody; and then spend some time on my own projects.”)
  • Items in a series, if one of the items is internally punctuated by commas. (“I will clean the pasture spring; rake the leaves away; and, if there’s time, wait to watch the water clear.”)
colon in letter
Salutation (Business Letter)

Use colons to separate the first part of a sentence from the rest, if it is an introduction to the next part, and the next part is really an explanation or more detail. (Here is my idea: we should go eat.) Colons are also used to separate hours and minutes when writing time (10:47 p.m.), and at the end of salutations in business letters (Dear Sir or Madam:).

Quotation Marks
Maybe fake?
Maybe fake?
  • Enclose direct quotes in quotation marks, but not indirect quotes. (He said, “You should go”; He said that I should go.)
  • Quotation marks are also used to signal words employed in a non-standard or ironic way. This usage gave rise to “air quotes” in spoken conversation. (W.C. fields kept a jug of “pineapple juice” on the movie set.)
  • When referring to a word or number as such (rather than to its meaning), you should italicize it and put it in quotation marks. (Is there an “a” in “perimeter”?)
  • A period or a comma should go inside the closing quotation mark, even if it is not part of the quote. Semicolons and colons reside outside the closing quotation mark, unless part of the quotation. This rule for semicolons and colons also applies to question marks and exclamation points. (The Wikipedia Style Manual applies the semicolon and colon rule to periods and commas as well, but that puts it in a small minority. Virtually all style manuals for journalists and authors apply the rule for periods and commas stated here.)
Yikes! A teacher, no less!
Yikes! A teacher, no less!

Apostrophes indicate:

  • Omissions, as in a contraction. (“Do not” becomes “Don’t.”)
  • Possession. (“John’s gospel”; “It is anyone’s game.”)
  • Plurals in the limited context of letters of the alphabet. (There are four s’s in “possess.”) Please don’t use apostrophes for normal pluralization!
  • Quotations internal to a quotation. (Actually, these are “single quotation marks,” not apostrophes.) (W.C. Fields famously said, “What rascal has been putting pineapple juice in my ‘pineapple juice!’”)
e.e. cummings could do this very well. Please don’t try this at home.
  • Of course, you know to use initial capitals at the beginning of a sentence (but not at the beginning of a clause internal to the sentence). (This clause starts with an initial capital; this clause does not.)
  • You also know that proper nouns (like “Texas”) and their derivatives (usually adjectives, like “Texan”) are capitalized. This includes the names of persons (including their titles, like “Monseigneur” or their roles, when used as a name or title, like “Mommy”), countries (“Rwanda”), geologic eras (“Paleozoic), historical periods and events (“the Middle Ages,” “World War I”), days (“Wednesday”), months (“October”), holidays (“Labor Day”), but not seasons (“spring”) or centuries (“the seventeenth century”). “God” and all pronouns referring to Him are capitalized. Most authorities capitalize abbreviations that are titles (“Mr.” or “Prof.”), but otherwise, not (“a.m.” and “etc.”).
  • The pronoun “I” is capitalized; “me,” “my” and “mine” are not.
  • The major words in titles also are capitalized. There are a few nuances to this: Verbs, even small ones like “is,” should be considered major words in a title (“Reading Is Fundamental”), while articles and prepositions are not (“Gone with the Wind”). The initial word in a title must be capitalized, even if it is not otherwise a “major” word (“On the Waterfront”).
A Note About Accent Marks

diacriticsDiacritical marks (loosely called “accent marks”) are as much part of spelling as are the letters in a word. Because English does not use many diacritical marks, it is easy to be blasé about them. Spell checkers do not like them. BUT: they are required if you wish to be technically correct. For example, the famous English playwright, Noël Coward, who was born on December 16, was named (apparently) after Christmas en français: (Noël). Almost everyone writes his name (and pronounces it) as if the two little dots — the diaeresis — were not there: “Noel Coward.” “Naïve” is another import word that seems to be gradually losing its diaeresis in English. We still seem to be hanging on to the accents in “canapé” and “touché,” however. The word “fête” (meaning party or festival) needs its circumflex accent, too. “Agape” means “wide open” in English. “Agapé” means love of men and mankind as brothers.

hotel eleganteYou may get through life with only the most sporadic need for accent marks in English. The greater risk is in thinking that by adding one where it does not belong, you will seem more sophisticated. For those who know better, it’s really rather pathetic. There is a hotel in Colorado Springs called “Hotel Eleganté.” The accent mark is a misfit in English; it is also an error in French, Spanish, and in every other romance language. Even the perpetrators of this barbarism fail to pronounce the accent, putting the emphasis instead on the next-to-last syllable (as it should be). So I guess they intend it to be a “non-accent” mark. Try not to commit this kind of ignorant mistake; it’s bush-league and completely avoidable.


Plurals in English are easy, for the most part. Surely you already know the basic rules:

Group 1: Add an “-s”

Most nouns simply take an “s,” and there you are. Examples: girl/girls, boy/boys, bike/bikes, car/cars, meal/meals, college/colleges.

Group 2: Add an “-es”

For nouns that end in “-ch,” “-o,” “-s,” “-x,” or “-z” add “-es.” Examples: church/churches, potato/potatoes, tomato/tomatoes, pass/passes, fox/foxes, buzz/buzzes. Note that “bus” is pluralized in the same way: “buses.” I know it looks as if it rhymes with fuses and ruses, but it doesn’t. If you write “busses,” you are using an old-fashioned word for “kisses”; and, even though it may be acceptable to some as the plural of “bus,” it is wrong. Also, the “-o” family deserves a word of caution: Usually, you add “-es,” but not for words that are abbreviated forms of other words. Then, you just add “-s.” Examples: memo/memos (from “memorandum“), cello/cellos (from “violoncello“) and stereo/stereos (a prefix from another word, “stereophonic“).

Group 3: Changes in Spelling

The final “-f” or “-fe” changes to a “-ve” before adding the “s.” Examples: knife/knives, life/lives, loaf/loaves, self/selves. For some reason, “roof” no longer follows the rule, although a century ago you would encounter “rooves.” The words “proof” and “dwarf” are also mavericks: “proofs” and “dwarfs.”

The final “-y” changes to “-i” before adding “es” if the “y” was preceded by a consonant: Examples: party/parties, try/tries, baby/babies, fatality/fatalities. If the final “-y” is preceded by a vowel, just add an “s.” Example: valleys. Proper names ending in “y” just take an “s“: Example: “The McHenrys“; “How many Schenectadys are there in the U.S.?

So far, so good. Now the tricky part comes in:

Group 4: Irregular Plurals

You already know most of these words, too, let us hope. You simply have to learn them. Most come from the Saxon side of English, and reflect Germanic plurals of long-standing. For example, “man” (or “husband”) in German is “Mann.” The plural is “Männer,” and is pronounced “men-er.” Common examples of irregular plurals: louse/lice, mouse/mice, goose/geese, man/men, woman/women, child/children, elk/elk, head (of cattle)/head, foot/feet, tooth/teeth. Some will say the plural of a computer mouse is “mouses.” That is really up to you to decide for yourself.

Group 5: Imported Words

Greek and Latin nouns are, in the main, made plural in English by following the inflection of the source language. If you haven’t studied Latin or Greek, then the only way to find your way around is to memorize these plural forms.

If the noun is of Greek origin, and ends in -on, the plural is -a. Examples: phenomenon/phenomena, criterion/criteria. Please don’t use “phenomena” or “criteria” with a single verb! More than one “neon,” however, is “neons.”

Some Greek nouns end in -a in the singular, like “drama” and “lemma.” Many of them, like “drama,” have been fully imported into English, so they follow the usual rules for plurals. The correct plural for “lemma” is still “lemmata.”

If the noun is of Latin origin, and ends in -a (feminine ending), the plural is “-ae.” Examples: alumna/alumnae, larva/larvae, nebula/nebulae. If the noun ends in -us (masculine ending), the plural is “-i.”  Examples: alumnus/alumni, cactus/cacti, hippopotamus/hippopotami, anthropophagus/anthropophagi. If the noun ends in -um (neuter ending), the plural is “-a.” Example: datum/data, erratum/errata, medium/media, memorandum/memoranda, millennium/millennia. Note: some words are often used in the plural, but if the speaker is unaware that it’s a plural, he or she will use a singular verb. “Agenda” is the main culprit here, which is a neuter plural. It means, literally, “things that must be done.” So it is technically wrong to say “The agenda is long.” It would be correct to say, “There are many agenda.” If you can’t bring yourself to use agenda in the plural, but your conscience troubles you about using “is,” say “the list of agenda” instead. “Media,” on the other hand, is almost always used (correctly) in the plural: “The media were infatuated with the Duchess of York.”

Some Latin nouns end in something other than “-a,” “-us,” or “-um.” The “-sis” ending (from Latin’s third declension) is pluralized to “-ses.” Examples: crisis/crises; basis/bases. Be sure to pronounce the second syllable of the plural to rhyme with “knees.” A similar plural (“-ces“) applies to words ending in “-ex.” Examples: index/indices; appendix/ appendices.

Imported French words follow the same principle: Their plurals follow French rules, too, unless the word has become so acclimated to English that it adopts the English rules. Example: beau (meaning boyfriend or male escort). The plural is beaux. The “x” is not pronounced. (Mark Twain said, “The French always spell better than they pronounce!”) French usually pluralizes with an “-s” even though it is often tacit, so the issue of irregular plurals does not often arise with French words in English. (English obtained its “-s” plural by import from Norman French nearly a millennium ago , so it’s no surprise that the two languages still use the same basic rule for plurals.)

Group 6: Compound and Hyphenated Nouns

You should have learned in school that the plural of “mother-in-law” is “mothers-in-law.” That makes sense, because the noun is really “mother,” and the “in-law” part is a kind of adjectival suffix. The same is true with “lady-in-waiting” and “sergeant-major” (plural: “sergeants-major“). You can be one “passerby,” or if you are in the company of someone else, there will be two “passersby.” Most compound nouns, however, follow the usual rules for plurals because the final part of the compound is really the noun part. Examples: boatloads; six-packs; toothbrushes; bedrooms.

Group 7: Letters and Words, Numbers and Acronyms

Add an “s” to pluralize a letter, a number, a “word that refers to itself” (see below), or an acronym (pronounceable abbreviation).

An apostrophe is used only in the plural of letters of the alphabet, and the plural of self-referring words. These are words that are cited, rather than used for their meaning. Example: The word “worm” begins with “w.” The “worm” in quotes is a self-referring word.

In all other instances, do not use an apostrophe in a plural! Add “-es” to make plural an acronym ending in “-s.” Consider the following examples:

    • Mind your p’s and q’s. (letters)
    • The 1960s were a time of political change. (numbers)
    • He used five “but‘s” in that sentence! (word that refers to itself)
    • She has two PhDs, one in sociology and one in economics. (acronym)
    • Does the test measure IQs over 120? (acronym)
    • How many GPSes do you need? (acronym ending in “s”)
Tricky Questions of Verb Agreement

Almost all of the time, the singular noun will take a singular verb, and the plural noun will take a plural verb. However, in American Standard English, we usually use the singular with collective nouns, whereas the British use the plural. Compare: The team was ready to play (USA) versus The team were ready to play. (UK)

The general rule: If the collective noun is used, and the intention is to refer to each member individually, use the plural: The jury were confused by the testimony. If the intention is to refer to the whole group, use the singular: The jury has rendered its verdict.

Companies, sports teams and subjects of study are usually referred to in the singular, even if they end in “s.” Examples: Chrysler Motors owns the Jeep trademark; The Steelers is my favorite NFL team; Mathematics is not my favorite course; Gymnastics is fun to watch. Also, “news” is singular: “The news is not good today.” (My journalist father used to have a co-worker on the paper who would come to work every day and ask, just to be funny, “Are there any news?” My father would always reply, “Not a new.”)

In the U.S., “pants” is usually singular. In the U.K., “trousers” is plural. “Glasses” (meaning spectacles) is singular (really, it is “a pair of glasses”). “Scissors” is usually plural, though, like “glasses,” if used in the singular, it probably derives from “a pair of scissors.”

Numbers are plural if they represent more than one member of a group: “Thirty-five people have signed up.” They are singular if they represent one collection of things: “One-third has signed up.”

Those Kind of Nouns

those kiindYou see it in print all the time:

They were one of those kind of teams
It’s nice to play those kind of games
I’m one of those kind of people.”

those” is plural”; “kind” is singular. They do not match.

Say “that kind” or “those kinds.” Then you have a match, either singular with singular, or plural with plural.

What is hard about this is understanding why anyone should insist on saying (and writing!) incorrectly on this point. It should be very simple, even to the very simple.

While we’re on the subject, think about what the (correct) plural version really means: “They were one of those kinds of teams,” or “It’s nice to play those kinds of games,” or “I’m one of those kinds of people.” How many “kinds” are there? “Kind” refers to a type, species, class or category. How many “kinds” did that team, or game, or person really represent? One: the “kind” that you were talking about. So please, use the singular. The plural makes little sense. I believe that those who say “kinds” really started of to say “those kind,” but caught themselves and then recovered by adding an afterthought “s” to the noun.

Make life easy for yourself: Develop the habit of saying “this kind” or “that kind,” and you’re done.

“Had Went” and “Needs Washed”

“Had went” and “needs washed” are examples of two common verb mistakes you must avoid. They involve using the wrong verb form, given the requirements of the phrase or expression. It is like choosing to change a flat tire with a monkey wrench: You may ultimately solve the problem, but you are using the wrong tool, and the outcome surely will not be pretty.

Past Tense Instead of Past Participle

“Had went” should be, of course, “Had gone.” The perfect tenses (those using the auxiliary verb “to have”) take the past participle of the verb. Using the simple past is simply wrong. Thus, “Have you ate?” is wrong; “Have you eaten?” is correct.

Tom, the piper's son
Tom, the piper’s son

The error is very old: In the eighteenth century nursery rhyme about Tom, the piper’s son, it appears at least twice, and the reverse problem (using the participle instead of the simple past) occurs once.

Tom, Tom the piper’s son,
Stole a pig and away he run. (ran!)
The pig was eat, (eaten!)
And Tom was beat, (beaten!)
And he went crying down the street.

This rule should be clear. The only fuzzy area that I can think of is “got.” “Gotten” is the past participle, but for centuries, “got” has also been acceptable, as in “Have you got any tomatoes today?” By the way, this “got” can have more than one meaning: “Did you acquire” or “Do you have”? On the whole, of course, it is better to avoid the verb “get,” and say whatever it is that you mean with a more precise verb.

Past Participle Instead of Present Participle
A female with medium length red hair and wearing a light pink shirt paired with light blue pants joyfully cleans the floor with a long mop in both her hands and a gray bucket beside her
Floor needs washed?

The use of the past participle instead of the present participle is another common verb mistake. Where I grew up, in Pittsburgh, it was very common to hear this construction: “The floor needs washed.” This should be “the floor needs washing.” The other day, I saw a note that said, “The caramel pecan sauce needs cooked longer.” In both cases, the correct form is the gerund, a verb form that serves as a noun. Each of these examples requires a noun as the direct object of “needs.” The past participle serves as an adjective, so it simply doesn’t meet the requirement. If you don’t like to use gerunds (and many people seem to dislike them), use an infinitive (in passive voice). It, too, can serve as a noun. Say instead, “the floor needs to be washed” and “the caramel pecan sauce needs to be cooked longer.” Problem solved.

The barn wants painted.
The barn wants painted.

This incorrect use of the past participle seems to flourish in regions of the country that were settled by German-speaking peoples, since German employs the past participle in this way. The usage is common throughout Pennsylvania and farther into the Mid-West. (Pennsylvania Dutch country was settled by German-speakers, not the Dutch.) It still may be common to hear, instead of “needs,” the verb “wants,” as in “The floor wants washed” or “The barn wants painted.” This use of the verb “want” refers to lacking rather than to desiring. Often the “washed” will be pronounced with an “r” in the middle of it: “warshed.” It’s a good idea to avoid that, too, if you possibly can.