Last week, I wrote that subject-verb disagreement matters because it signals a serious breach in etiquette. And that distracts business readers. Relatively few of my former students (or writers for whom I served as editor) have committed the faux pas in the writing they have done for me. But, for those amateur writers who do struggle with subject-verb disagreement, it is critical that they learn to avoid it in order to be recognized as a professional. The only fix depends upon the ability to identify the grammatical subject of a sentence.
This isn’t exactly good news. The vast majority of English (or language arts) teachers in North America use a semantic definition (like “the subject is the do-er of the action”) to teach students about the concept of grammatical subject. The fact is that subject is not a semantic concept so a semantic definition has too many exceptions to be useful. Many students intuit the concept of subject without needing any help. But, if you’ve passed into or through adolescence and are writing sentences with subject-verb disagreement, the traditional definition is not going to help you. You need a teacher who can provide you with explicit knowledge of the grammatical subject in English.
The better news is that there is a good technique for identifying a grammatical subject. The video lecture-tutorial I’m sharing with you today uses an operational test to help amateurs. I learned about this in an article by Rei Noguchi titled, Transformational-Generative Syntax and the Teaching of Sentence Mechanics, which I read back in the 1980s when I was in grad school. Here’s how it works. Native (and some non-native) speakers of English have the tacit knowledge needed to create a tag ending for a declarative sentence: The storm named Isaac, which is traveling over southern Florida, is approaching the Gulf Coast –> The storm named Isaac, which is traveling over southern Florida, is approaching the Gulf Coast, isn’t it? And they know what it means storm. So all I have to tell them is that the pronoun in a tag ending refers back to the grammatical subject. Then, after a little guided practice (like in the video), they can add a tag ending to most sentences and identify their subjects.
Although the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) published Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers, which follows in Noguchi’s footsteps, its content sadly does not seem to represent standard knowledge for the vast majority of writing teachers. (You can download a free copy of this book from the WAC Clearinghouse.) For a more thorough discussion of why a grammatical subject cannot be accurately defined as “the do-er of the action” check out this post from Linguischtick. And if you want to dive into the deep end and tackle (how’s THAT for mixing metaphors?) agreement questions related to special forms like “none,” read this post from Motivated Grammar.
Let me know if you find the tutorial helpful.