Page 3 Cleaning Up English Study Guide for the English Basics

Suffering Sentences

Don’t let these sentences suffer any longer! Here are some of the most common problems that cause painful sentences and how to address those problems. Relief is on the way, poor sentences!

No Subject-Verb Agreement

To be complete, a sentence must have a subject, a verb, and express a complete thought. When the parts don’t work together correctly, however, you end up with a suffering sentence.

One of the most common issues is not having subject and verb agreement. This means that the action of the sentence (the verb) somehow doesn’t match up correctly with the subject of the sentence. This may be because of number or tense.

Subjects and verbs must agree with each other in number (plural subjects require plural forms of verbs, single subjects require the singular verb form). They must also agree in tense (if the subject is doing something in the past, present, or future, the verb must match the time). Here are some examples of sentences that don’t have subject-verb agreement and the fixes that can be used to end their suffering.

Suffering sentence: “The stack of books are on the table.”
Problem: There is no subject-verb agreement. One may look at the nouns in the sentence and mistakenly think books is the subject and therefore choose the plural verb are, but the sentence is really about the stack of books. Since stack is singular, the verb must be in the singular form.
Solution: “The stack of books is on the table.”

Suffering sentence: “We watch the sunset yesterday.”
Problem: The event took place in the past (yesterday), but the verb conjugation is for the present (watch).
Solution: We watched the sunset yesterday.

Suffering sentence: “She be at work all day.”
Problem: It’s the wrong conjugation of the verb to be. Since it’s on-going (all day), then it needs to be conjugated correctly.
Solution: “She is at work all day.”

Subject-verb agreement can also be affected by the use of contractions. Look at this:

There’s three boats tied up in the harbor.”

Split the contraction apart:

There is three boats tied up in the harbor.”

You can see that there is a problem with subject-verb agreement because the verb is singular (is), but the subject is plural (boats). Check contractions to be sure that, if you substitute the full words, the sentence still makes sense.

Double Negatives

Double negatives work the same way in English that they do in math—they create a positive when used together. Using double negatives really changes the meaning of a sentence and, usually, not in the way intended, so watch out for them. Here are some examples of sentences with double negatives, what they mean, and how they should be fixed so that the intended message is delivered.

“Don’t tell no one about what happened this morning.”

If you don’t tell no one, that means you must tell someone. If you really want it to remain secret, rewrite the sentence to omit one of the two negatives (don’t/no one):

“Don’t tell anyone about what happened this morning.”

“She shouldn’t never have tried to stand on top of the moving car.”

If she shouldn’t never have tried, then that implies that she should have tried, at some point, to stand on top of the moving car. But that’s not smart. Fix the sentence by omitting one of the negatives again:

“She shouldn’t ever have tried to stand on top of the moving car.”

or

“She should never have tried to stand on top of the moving car.”

“I can’t eat no more!”

This implies that you can eat some more. Remove one of the negatives and you won’t be served any more:

“I can’t eat any more!”

Although more awkward to say, but still grammatically correct, you could say:

“I can eat no more!”

Lack of Parallel Structure

Parallel structure has to do with formatting sentences so that all of the parts are presented as equals. It requires using the same sentence construction for all verb phrases in the sentence. Sentences (and their meaning) suffer when parallel structure is missing. Here are two examples of sentences without parallel structure and then what they look like when reformatted to create parallel structure.

“Running, cycling, and a swim are all required components of a triathlon.”

Two of the components are presented as gerunds (running and cycling), but the third is not (a swim). Make them all consistent by revising to:

“Running, cycling, and swimming are all required components of a triathlon.”

“The class voted to end weekend homework and that they should have the last 10 minutes of class to talk with each other.”

There’s no balance in this sentence. But watch what happens when we format it so that both components are presented equally:

“The class voted to end weekend homework and to have the last 10 minutes of class to talk with each other.”

Ending Sentences with At

Language is ever-evolving. That means that the rules governing language are also subject to shift. At one point, students were taught that it’s never okay to end a sentence with a preposition. This led to restructuring sentences in ways that sometimes sound awkward or confusing and aren’t how regular people speak. The generally accepted rules about ending sentences with prepositions (like at) today are:

Never end a sentence with a preposition in formal writing situations.
It’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition in informal or conversational writing or if omitting the preposition would lead to confusion.
In the case of at, it is one of those prepositions that does not need to be included at the end of a sentence for the sentence to make sense. For example:

“Where are you at?” is considered to be poor grammar because you could ask, “Where are you?” and the audience would understand what is being asked. So, the word at should never find itself at the end of a sentence.