Archive for category Grammar Tips

grammarNOW! Tip of the Week: agreement with collective nouns

Words that refer to a group of people or objects but are singular in form are called collective nouns.

Examples: army, audience, choir, committee, team, mob, number

Verbs and pronouns used with collective nouns are either singular or plural, depending upon the meaning of the group word. If you consider the noun a unit, then use a singular verb and relative pronoun:

The team wants to win its division.
The committee is made up of department heads.
The noun in both sentences is considered a single unit, so the verb in each case is singular, and the pronoun in the first sentence is singular as well.

If you consider the collective noun a group of individuals, use a plural verb and plural pronouns:

The committee are arguing among themselves.
Both the verb and pronoun are plural, because the committee is viewed as a group of individuals, not a unit.

The collective noun “number” may be singular or plural. When it is considered arithmetical (you can count it, 1-2-3…), it is usually singular:

The number of students assigned to the new high school is higher than expected.
This number of students can be counted.
A number of students have already chosen their classes for the new semester.
This “number” is a concept, typically referring to a relatively large group.

If the noun following “number” is also collective, follow the guidelines above:

The number of people signed up for the reunion is growing daily.
A number of people are in disagreement with the proposed regulations.

grammarNOW! says:

I’ve compiled a few online lists of collective nouns for your pleasure and edification:

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grammarNOW! Tip of the Week: the ellipsis

An ellipsis (with an i) is a punctuation mark consisting of 3 dots used either to indicate that words or phrases are omitted in a sentence (usually a quote) or, in common usage, to pause in thought or allow a thought to trail off without completing it. Examples:

Thoreau notes: “I learned . . . that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, . . . he will meet with . . . success. . . .” []
Well . . . what do you think?
I thought we were in agreement, but . . . ?

Most word processing programs have an automatic replacement feature that inserts unspaced dots and calls it an ellipsis. You can change the settings, however, to make it correctly spaced.

When you wish to end a quote with the ellipsis, you must add the period as the fourth dot, spacing before it. Example: President Kennedy said, “Ask not what you can do for your country . . . .”

grammarNOW! says:

The plural word “ellipses” (with an e) refers to the dots themselves, not the combined punctuation mark.

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grammarNOW! Tip of the Week: the apostrophe

The correct use of an apostrophe is either to form a possessive or a contraction.

  1. Possessive: the teacher’s sign, a person’s signature, your foot’s toe
    *The only possessives that do NOT use the apostrophe are pronouns:
    his, hers, its, theirs, whose, theirs, yours, ours
  2. Contraction: don’t, isn’t, can’t

You will also find the apostrophe used when letters have been removed: rock ‘n’ roll, or when a plural would be misread: do’s and don’ts (It would be awkward to read “dos” and don’ts.).

For common acronyms or abbreviations that are typically capitalized, do not use an apostrophe to form the plural. Just add an s: DVDs, CDs.

Please, I’m begging here, do NOT use the apostrophe to form the plurals of nouns:


This is a sign on a teacher’s blackboard. Ouch! These are parents, not parent’s, and those are cookies, not cookie’s.
(source:, FAIL blog)

Image result for apostrophe misuse

I’m speechless.











If you can find other examples of incorrect apostrophe use, and they’re everywhere so this should be an easy assignment, please post them here for our pleasure (or pain).

grammarNOW! says:

A necessary point of clarification here: Its is the possessive pronoun (Example: “The apostrophe is losing its meaning.”). It’s means it is (Example: “It’s not that hard!”).

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grammarNOW! Language Commentary of the Week: bring or take?

Do you bring something or take something? These days, all I ever hear is bring! It seems that take is in danger of being lost as a verb of transport. There is a difference, and basically, it is that you bring something toward or with yourself and take something away from yourself. Examples:

Would you bring that book to me when you’re through reading it? (to yourself)
I’ll be happy to bring a salad with me to the party. (with you, speaking to the host, who is not with you)
Will you take this report to the meeting? (away from yourself)
I’ll take the car to the shop to get the tires aligned. (away from where you and the listener are)

The difference between some of these is subtle, but it used to be natural for a native speaker and only difficult for a non-native speaker. Now it seems difficult for all speakers because of the ubiquitous use of bring. Nearly everyone is losing the distinction and natural understanding of that distinction, so it is harder and harder to explain.

Here is an excellent source that offers a more detailed explanation:

Listen for yourself. What do you hear people saying? I’ll bet you hear bring most of the time. In fact, if you hear take at all, I’d be surprised. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard it in the past month, in personal conversation or on television. I’m not the only one who cares, judging by the number of sites I see discussing this online (about 27,000,000 Google results). Plenty of people have opinions, but the experts all agree: Bring it here and take it there, unless you’re bringing it with you (as above).

grammarNOW! says:

Bring back take!

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grammarNOW! Tip of the Week: plurals of names

Remember: NEVER use an apostrophe to form a plural of a name. Here are examples of this common ERROR:

The Singh’s
The Jones’s
The Martinez’s

The rule: To form a plural, just add ‘s’ or ‘es’:

The Singhs
The Joneses
The Martinezes (Yes, that sounds awkward, but it’s correct. To avoid all those syllables, try revising the construction. Instead of this:
I know all the Martinezes.
Try this:
I know the whole Martinez family.)

When you need to make the name possessive, the apostrophe is correct:

The Singhs’ house
The Joneses’ party
The Martinezes’ wedding
Note that you form the plural first and then make it possessive.

For a single person, just add apostrophe-s:

Rav Singh’s house
Karen Jones’s party
Julio Martinez’s wedding

grammarNOW! says:


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grammarNOW! Tip of the Week: Agreement – compound subjects and their verb


Compounding involves having more than one of a grammatical element (subject, verb, object, etc.). If you have a compound subject, all subjects would refer to the same verb. For example (subjects are underlined):
Cool breezes, blooming flowers, and warmer temperatures mean that spring is on the way.

A compound subject almost always takes a plural verb, but sometimes, phrases become singular to our ear, or we sense that they are a unit, especially when the noun they refer to is singular:
Peanut butter and jelly is my favorite sandwich. (The subject complement, sandwich, is singular, so the compound subject peanut butter and jelly is singular.)

Some abstract subjects should be treated as singular if they are commonly considered a conceptual unit:
Peace and quiet is rare in this office.

When a compound subject is joined by “and” and is modified by “every” or “each,” the verb is singular:
Each boy and girl is to memorize a poem.
Every one of us is responsible for our choices.

When a compound subject is joined by “or,” “neither…nor,” or “either…or” the verb should agree with the subject closest to it.
Neither my friend nor I want to see the movie.
My dad or my mom drives me to school.

When you begin a sentence with a verb and the subjects follow, decide whether you have one or multiple subjects and make the verb agree:
Enclosed are a resume and letters of reference. (If you turn it around, agreement is clear: A resume and letters of reference are enclosed.)

grammarNOW! says:

When the verb follows a subject placeholder like “there,” and then the “real” compound subjects follow the verb, it isn’t so simple. I would use what sounds natural, and not use an awkward verb because it may follow a “correct” rule. This is considered “notional agreement” when the number of the verb is affected by the noun closest to it. I’ll discuss this in another tip.

Remember that a regular plural verb does NOT end in /s/, while a singular verb often does (just the opposite of nouns).


grammarNOW! Tip of the Week: And/But…

Using either of these conjunctions to begin a sentence is generally considered unacceptable formal English, but even that prohibition is lessening. You will find it everywhere in fiction and in much other writing, including some academic articles. It is a stylistic choice that should be made rarely and very carefully, keeping the audience’s preferences in mind. Here is what Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has to say about it:


Everybody agrees that it’s all right to begin a sentence with an *and,* and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice was wrong. Most of us think the prohibition goes back to our early school days. Bailey 1984 points out that the prohibition is probably meant to correct the tendency of children to string together independent clauses or simple declarative sentences with “ands”:
“We got in the car and we went to the movie and I bought some popcorn and . . .”

As children grow older and master the more sophisticated technique of subordinating clauses, the prohibition of “and” becomes unnecessary. But apparently our teachers fail to tell us when we may forget about the prohibition. Consequently, many of us go through life thinking it wrong to begin a sentence with “and.”


“Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it; there is no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change” (Zinsser 1976).

Everybody who mentions this question agrees with Zinsser. The only generally expressed warning is not [emphasis mine] to follow the “but” with a comma, as in this example:
“But, hasty, ill-considered and emotional prohibitions can seriously threaten individual industries” (Annual Report, Owens-Illinois, 1970).

grammarNOW! says:

Sometimes it is acceptable and even effective to begin with conjunctions. You may have been told never to begin with “and” or “but,” but if you really want to emphasize the added information, and your text is not too formal, you can do it. Just avoid that comma.

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grammarNOW! Tip of the Week: The importance of proofing your writing . . . and the significance of a comma

In his blog of Feb. 15, regarding the novel Tribulation Force, Slacktivist bemoans absent editing. In particular, one example of a comma in this novel suggests a meaning completely opposite the author’s intent. Slactivist quotes:

Rayford watched the news and was certain Chloe had been correct. It had indeed been Buck Williams, not more than 30 feet from the witnesses and even closer to the gunman, who was now little more than charred bones on the pavement.

And then he goes on to comment:

Commas can be tricky. The sentences that follow the ones above make it clear that Jerry Jenkins didn’t mean to say, “It had indeed been Buck Williams . . . who was now little more than charred bones on the pavement.” What he meant to say was pretty much the opposite—that Rayford realized Buck hadn’t gotten charred:

Israeli television stayed with the images longer, and after watching the drama a few times, Rayford was able to take his eyes from the fire-breathing witnesses and watch the edge of the screen. Buck rose quickly and helped the dark-suited man next to him. Neither appeared hurt.

This is why re-reading what one has written, and then rewriting to clear up ambiguities, is part of most novelists’ approach. But Jenkins isn’t like most novelists and Tyndale House isn’t like most publishers. Jenkins first draft is his final draft, and Tyndale is happy to forward that manuscript along to readers. Other books arrive in stores and libraries pre-read, but not this one. When you read Tribulation Force all the way through, you get to experience the thrill of knowing that you’ve just accomplished something the authors themselves have never done.

The downside of this, unfortunately, is that you also have to supply the work of mentally rewriting the sentences Jenkins never bothered to revisit himself. “It had indeed been Buck Williams, not more than 30 feet from the witnesses and even closer to the charred bones on the pavement where the gunman had stood.” Much better. (But then again if the authors had re-read this passage, or if it had been read by a capable editor, then someone likely would have crossed out the whole page seeing as it only rehashes a bunch of stuff readers just finished reading.)

grammarNOW! says:

Everyone needs a copyeditor. The best writers—the best coyeditors—need copyeditors. In a shameless plug for my own service, see what I offer at Let me help you avoid being the subject of a critical blogger.

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grammarNOW! Tip of the Week: a/the

Articles are sometimes the most difficult thing about English, especially for non-native speakers. Here are some basic guidelines:

Use the when you want to be specific about a noun; use a when you want a more general reference.

Compare: the president (the one we both know I’m referring to) or a president (any president, no one in particular).

You would rarely use a before a proper noun because the name itself is a specific identifier. For example, you would not say, “May I introduce you to a Tom Selleck?”

You would, however, use the when you want to emphasize that the proper noun is the one everyone thinks of when they hear the name. For example, I once received an email from someone named Gary Larson. I had to ask, “Are you the Gary Larson?” I was referring to the comic artist, and he was not that talented person, but he does have his own talent and a very useful writing site at

There is the rare time when you might want to use a in a way such as this: He was in touch with a Dr. Kevorkian, but I don’t know why. Obviously, the speaker does not know the doctor’s reputation but expects that the name would have prominence in some circles.

grammarNOW! says:

There are many excellent online sources for this very subject; here’s one I like:

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grammarNOW! Tip of the Week: active/passive voice

active/passive voice

A verb is in passive voice when the action described by the verb is done to the subject rather than the subject doing the action. Example:

  • The new advertising campaign was successfully handled by Mario. (subject: campaign; action: was handled)

The action (was handled) is done to the subject (campaign) by someone or something (in this case, Mario).

Here is that sentence in the active voice:

  • Mario successfully handled the new advertising campaign.

The subject (Mario) does the action (handled).

See the difference?

Passive verbs are always formed with some form of “be” plus the past participle of another verb. More examples:

  • The sweater had been lost by Tracy for a week before she told her sister.
  • The accident was caused by faulty brakes.
  • Carlo was chosen class president.

The action in an active sentence moves more directly from subject through verb to object. Revisions for the above sentences:

  • Tracy lost the sweater a week before she told her sister.
  • Faulty brakes caused the accident.
  • We selected Carlo to be class president.

Even though you may have had an overzealous English teacher telling you to avoid it, the passive voice is not always incorrect. It most certainly has an effective time and place for use. You can usually determine when that is by asking if the revision is awkward and stilted. Of course, when you are asked to rewrite, then you must.

The most common problem with passive voice, besides overuse, is that a subject is often omitted, causing confusion or misreading. Most of the time in business writing, passive is used to avoid a sense of informality resulting from the use of “you” or “I.” However, there are many other ways to revise a sentence to avoid the personal pronouns (which are becoming less problematic in today’s writing).

grammarNOW! says:

Word processing software will always identify passive voice for you so that you can decide whether your phrasing is the most effective. Always try to restructure it in the active voice, but then determine which is most effective.

You can find much more about active and passive voice at many of the resource sites linked from mine.

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