Writer's toolkit

5th September 2003 at 01:00
The tools of grammar are a remarkably mixed bunch. Some of them are beautiful and superbly efficient but other bits are just useless left-overs from an earlier system which has gone into decline. Take the rule of subject-verb agreement: The school gets new pupils this week.

The schools get new pupils this week.

The verb's ending (get, gets) shows whether the subject is singular or not - in grammar-speak the verb "agrees" with its subject. But why bother? Here's a list of reasons for not bothering with subject-verb agreement: * We already know whether the subject is singular from the subject's own ending (school, schools), so why repeat this information on the verb?

* We already know which noun is the subject, so the verb's ending doesn't help us to find it (eg, by showing it must be "the school", not "new pupils"); we know that the subject is the noun just before the verb, regardless of agreement.

* If the verb is in the past, we don't bother with agreement: it's always "got"; so why bother in the present? This is true for all verbs except the verb "to be", where we have either "was" or "were". Non-standard dialects don't bother with agreement.

* Some dialects don't bother with agreement even in the present tense - for example, in East Anglia it's always "get" (she get, they get) while in many parts of the west and north of England you only find "gets" (she gets, they gets). And so far as we know these people get on just fine without agreement - as do all the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, who never make any verbs agree with subjects.

So what do we tell the children? You may have noticed how the Powers That Be (notice the lack of agreement!) go on about agreement in the national curriculum, so who are we to spread subversive doctrines? Let's see, then, if we can find a couple of good reasons why a writer might care about subject-verb agreement.

* The fact is that, for good or ill, subject-verb agreement is still part of Standard English. If you're aiming to write in Standard English, your verbs had better follow the standard rules, otherwise people will think you don't know any better.

* The verb's ending does sometimes add a little something to the meaning because: * we can use a plural verb with a singular noun: My class are all doing well. (Not: My class is all doing well!) * we can use a singular verb with a plural subject: Five pounds is too much. (Not: are ...) The pros and cons of agreement looks (ahem!) like a good topic for a class discussion. Eg, what's the difference between "is" and "are" in "Our class isare big."?

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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