Friday, September 24, 2010

grammar moment:sv agreement

Forgive me for using the G. word. Just the mention of it can clear a room but I’m here to tell you, brothers and sisters on the long and twisty road of the writing life, it’s just another part of writing. It’s helpful to know it well enough so you don’t have to think about it. So here’s a little grammar moment.

I am not myself a grammarian and I do not worship at the altar of the Grammar God. Fortunately, I have a friend who I will call the Grammar Guru (to protect the guilty) who does. He lives nearby. He is very tall. He has green hair. He knows grammar.

The first time I visited him to ask a question about grammar I was na├»ve and impressionable. Along the way the spirit of an undiscovered—during and after his lifetime-- writer genius ( self-proclaimed, of course) named Hal stopped me to ask why I would waste my time on grammar when I wanted to be a Writer—that’s with a capital W in case you missed it.

Good question, I thought.

Spirit Hal made me think about writers I’d known who were crappy at grammar but had something more important—voice and soul and power in their words. Hal also made me think of people who were excellent with grammar and crappy writers anyway. They were stiff and had no heart to their writing and not much to say. Grammar wasn’t going to help that.

And yet. And yet. Wasn’t grammar just one more part of writing? Wasn’t it worth knowing well enough you weren’t bothered by not knowing it? I thought so.

“Get thee behind me, Hal,” I said and continued on the road to the Grammar Guru’s house.

Hal did get behind me but he kept talking. He kept saying things like, “A real Writer needs grammar like a fish needs a boat.”

I had to admit that was pretty good, but I stayed my course.

I knocked on the Grammar Guru’s door. He opened it. He was taller than the doorway. I told you he was tall.

“Ah,” he said. “Greetings fellow traveler.”

He always greeted me this way. He always greeted everyone this way. Probably it had something to do with his being a guru.

“I can see you’ve come with a question. Tea first.”

He always gave me tea first. He drank a lot of tea. He also commented on the state of the world like it was the stock market.

“The world is up today,” he said. “Good news in the trenches.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

“I have a question about subjects and verbs,” I said when we’d finished our tea. “What do people mean when they say subjects and verbs have to agree? I mean do they sometimes disagree? How do they disagree? Is it like, the verb says, ‘ hey subject, I don’t think you understand why I think dogs are better pets than cats.’ And subject says to verb, ‘I understand, but I know cats are better. More personality. Less care.’ What does disagree mean oh grammar guru?”

“I’m glad you asked me that,” he said. He always said that. He was glad about most things. I guess that was part of being a guru.

Here was his answer:

Subjects and verbs have to agree in sentences. This usually isn’t a problem in future and past tense. There are a few exceptions (like was/were, the past tense of is/are) but mostly there won’t be a verb choice between a singular subject and a plural subject in the past. For example:
Jack walked up the hill.
Jack and Jill walked up the hill.
Walked is the same whether the subject is singular (Jack) or plural (Jack and Jill).
The problem with agreement comes with singular and plural subjects in the present tense and in the third person. For example,
Jack walks up the hill
Jack and Jill walk up the hill.
A regular verb will have an “s” on it when the subject is singular. No “s” when the subject is plural.
(To be continued)


Yat-Yee said...

It's too bad grammar gets such a bad rap: but I am glad the Guru is doing what he can to elevate its standard!

Brian Yansky said...

Thanks, Yat-Yee. He is tall so that does help him see across the vast and messy landscape of English grammar.