Usage

Do you write “is” or “are”? How to balance “either…or” and “neither… nor” and the like? Do you know what exactly is dangling in this sentence: “Hanging from the balcony, I saw a torn Canadian flag”? Here are guidelines for:

  • active versus passive verbs
  • “is” or “are”?
  • singular or plural
  • parallelism
  • paired conjunctions
  • dangling modifiers
  • attribution

Active versus passive verbs

Generally use active verbs rather than passive, although use passive verbs occasionally to vary sentences or to emphasize an aspect of the sentence.

Write: U of G drama students are staging Waiting for Godot rather than Waiting for Godot is being staged by U of G drama students.

“Is” or “are”?

Parenthetical nouns inside commas or dashes have no impact on the verb form of the sentence.

INCORRECT:

Prof. Lisa Duizer, along with master’s student Matt Rietberg and undergraduate student Derek Vella, are laying the groundwork.

CORRECT:

Prof. Lisa Duizer, along with master’s student Matt Rietberg and undergraduate student Derek Vella, is laying the groundwork.

CORRECT:

The University of Guelph, and everyone who studies here, explores here, teaches here and works here, is committed to one simple purpose. (You could write: “The University is committed to one simple purpose” without affecting the verb form of the sentence and without losing its meaning.)

Note: For guidelines on commas, see the Punctuation section of this guide.

Some compound subjects are considered a single unit and take a singular verb (e.g., bread and butter is included), but in most cases, compound subjects take plural verbs.

INCORRECT:

More information and a complete schedule of events is available online.

CORRECT:

More information and a complete schedule of events are available online.

INCORRECT:

His passion and dedication to the archives has affirmed his legacy at U of G.

CORRECT:

His passion and dedication to the archives have affirmed his legacy at U of G.

Singular or plural?

A collective noun (class, family, audience, group, team, etc.) takes a singular verb if it’s seen as a unit (the audience was silent) and a plural verb if it’s thought of as a collection of individuals (the audience were stamping their feet).

Couple usually takes a plural verb (the couple were hurt in the crash) but is singular on the rare occasion when it’s treated as a unit (a couple pays $10 a ticket).

When number, total and variety are preceded by the, they take a singular verb. Preceded by a, they take a plural verb:

A variety of foods are available. The variety of foods is impressive.

Be careful with plural nouns like data, media, bacteria, criteria and graffiti. They should not be paired with singular verbs.

INCORRECT:

That data shows the test was accurate.

CORRECT:

The data show the test was accurate.

INCORRECT:

Everyone in the room nodded their heads in agreement.

CORRECT:

Everyone in the room nodded their head in agreement.

INCORRECT:

The company has announced that they will be moving their head office to Guelph.

CORRECT:

The company has announced that it will be moving its head office to Guelph.

Parallelism

Parts of a sentence that are similar must have the same structure. Faulty parallelism occurs when pairs or series of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., aren’t balanced.

INCORRECT:

I enjoy tennis more than playing baseball. This is faulty because tennis is a noun and playing baseball is a verb phrase.

CORRECT:

I enjoy tennis more than baseball OR I enjoy playing tennis more than playing baseball.

INCORRECT:

He always has and always will be a hero to his kids.

CORRECT:

He always has been and always will be a hero to his kids.

One of the most common parallelism errors writers make is mixing nouns and verb phrases.

INCORRECT:

The researchers found that males that did not migrate had better breeding sites, a higher status and attracted more females than the migrating males did.

CORRECT:

The researchers found that males that did not migrate had better breeding sites and a higher status, and attracted more females than the migrating males did.

Another common error occurs when some of the nouns or verbs in a series are grouped together but aren’t set off properly from the rest of the list.

INCORRECT:

Shane’s wealth of knowledge in veterinary medicine, client communications and familiarity with OVC will enable him to further develop the work that has been done.

CORRECT:

Shane’s wealth of knowledge in veterinary medicine and client communications and his familiarity with OVC will enable him to further develop the work that has been done.

Mixing adjectives and a verb phrase:

INCORRECT:

That approach can be costly, time-consuming and ultimately affect a child’s nutritional well-being.

CORRECT:

That approach can be costly and time-consuming, and can ultimately affect a child’s nutritional well-being.

Paired Conjunctions

When you use paired conjunctions, the sentence construction that follows the first half of the pair should be balanced by the construction that follows the second half of the pair.

Either . . . or

INCORRECT:

Either you’re with me or against me.

CORRECT:

Either you’re with me or you’re against me.

The following illustrates how moving either to different positions in a sentence affects the subsequent sentence construction:

You can either get there by taking public transit or get there by taking a cab.

You can get there either by taking public transit or by taking a cab.

You can get there by either taking public transit or taking a cab.

You can get there by taking either public transit or a cab.

Neither . . . nor

INCORRECT:

I have neither the time nor do I have the inclination to discuss the issue.

CORRECT:

I have neither the time nor the inclination to discuss the issue.

Both . . . and

INCORRECT:

The co-op program is popular both with students and employers.

CORRECT:

The co-op program is popular both with students and with employers.

ALSO CORRECT:

The co-op program is popular with both students and employers.

INCORRECT:

He is working both in London and Guelph.

CORRECT:

He is working both in London and in Guelph

ALSO CORRECT:

He is working in both London and Guelph.

Not only . . . but also

When using not only in a sentence, it should be succeeded by but also. Writers often leave out the also in their copy.

INCORRECT:

He is not only a teacher but a financial adviser.

CORRECT:

He is not only a teacher but also a financial adviser.

Note: Substituting just for only doesn’t eliminate the need to use but also.

He is not just a teacher but also a financial adviser.

Not only . . . but also constructions are prone to faulty parallelism.

INCORRECT:

I not only studied chemistry but also French literature.

CORRECT:

I not only studied chemistry but also studied French literature.

ALSO CORRECT:

I studied not only chemistry but also French literature.

INCORRECT:

Not only are her parents paying for her education but also for her trip to Europe.

CORRECT:

Not only are her parents paying for her education, but they’re also paying for her trip to Europe.

INCORRECT:

With this course, you will not only brush up on your skills but will also learn about recent advances in your profession.

CORRECT:

With this course, you will not only brush up on your skills but also learn about recent advances in your profession.

INCORRECT:

The older birds with a higher status stay not only because there’s a sense of urgency to breed but also they know staying will improve their chances of becoming an alpha.

CORRECT:

The older birds with a higher status stay not only because there’s a sense of urgency to breed but also because they know staying will improve their chances of becoming an alpha.

Comparisons

When making comparisons, be sure the things compared are similar logically as well as grammatically.

INCORRECT:

Ontario’s funding levels are lower than the rest of Canada.

CORRECT:

Ontario’s funding levels are lower than those in the rest of Canada.

INCORRECT:

They have a climate similar to Haiti.

CORRECT:

They have a climate similar to Haiti’s.

ALSO CORRECT:

They have a climate similar to that of Haiti.

INCORRECT:

Hockey is more popular in Canada than the United States.

CORRECT:

Hockey is more popular in Canada than in the United States.

INCORRECT:

Driving downtown is faster than the bus.

CORRECT:

Driving downtown is faster than taking the bus.

INCORRECT:

Today’s agriculture students will enter a job market more varied than past decades.

CORRECT:

Today’s agriculture students will enter a job market more varied than in past decades.

INCORRECT:

She was a volunteer at the hospital, a youth group leader in her church and served as a camp counsellor.

CORRECT:

She was a volunteer at the hospital, was a youth group leader in her church and served as a camp counsellor.

ALSO CORRECT:

She was a volunteer at the hospital, a youth group leader in her church and a camp counsellor.

INCORRECT:

She loves cooking, reading and has taken up knitting.

CORRECT:

She loves cooking and reading and has taken up knitting.

INCORRECT:

Skimson holds a B.Sc. from Dalhousie University, an MBA from McMaster and has held a number of senior management roles at Stryker Canada.

CORRECT:

Skimson holds a B.Sc. from Dalhousie University and an MBA from McMaster and has held a number of senior management roles at Stryker Canada.

ALSO CORRECT:

Skimson holds a B.Sc. from Dalhousie University, has an MBA from McMaster and has held a number of senior management roles at Stryker Canada.

Another common error occurs when you group together some of the nouns or verbs in a series but don’t set them off properly from the rest of the list.

INCORRECT:

Shane’s wealth of knowledge in veterinary medicine, client communications and familiarity with OVC will enable him to further develop the work that has been done.

CORRECT:

Shane’s wealth of knowledge in veterinary medicine and client communications and his familiarity with OVC will enable him to further develop the work that has been done.

INCORRECT:

He performs at charity fundraisers, public and corporate events.

CORRECT:

He performs at charity fundraisers and public and corporate events.

INCORRECT:

He played soccer, golf, skied, ran and served as captain of his school’s hockey team.

CORRECT:

He played soccer and golf, skied, ran and served as captain of his school’s hockey team.

INCORRECT:

Her collaborators are graduate students Angus Macaulay, Faz Ashkar, Tim Carter and Prof. Pawel Bartlewski.

CORRECT:

Her collaborators are graduate students Angus Macaulay, Faz Ashkar and Tim Carter and Prof. Pawel Bartlewski.

And here’s a case of mixing adjectives and a verb phrase:

INCORRECT:

That approach can be costly, time-consuming and ultimately affect a child’s nutritional well-being.

CORRECT:

That approach can be costly and time-consuming and can ultimately affect a child’s nutritional well-being.

Some sentences that contain a comparison sound logical without being fully parallel.

She likes coffee more than tea.

Although the meaning is clear in this case, it may not be so clear at other times.

She likes coffee more than her husband.

Does this mean she likes coffee more than she likes her husband or more than her husband likes coffee? If it’s the latter, write: She likes coffee more than her husband does.

In a similar vein, here’s another common mistake people make:

INCORRECT:

He’s a lot taller than me but shorter than her.

CORRECT:

He’s a lot taller than I (am) but shorter than she (is).

Dangling modifiers

When beginning a sentence with a modifying phrase, it must be linked to the noun that immediately follows it. So be sure that the noun that immediately follows is the one meant to be modified, unlike these unfortunate examples:

Rolling in the dirt, Jane watched the pigs.

Hanging from the balcony, I saw a torn Canadian flag.

At the age of five, my father bought me a dog.

Equipped with cameras, infrared sensors and an innovative arm capable of gripping and cutting the most fragile fruit, Prof. Simon Yang designed the robot with the Canadian greenhouse industry in mind.

Modifying phrases that begin with to also tend to dangle but are less obvious.

INCORRECT:

To ensure financial security, it’s important to start saving when you’re young.

CORRECT:

To ensure financial security, you must start saving when you’re young.

Attribution

Using according to in attribution can cast doubt on the source’s credibility, so use it sparingly.

Don’t overuse attribution. Use he said/she said just enough to ensure the reader knows who’s speaking and to avoid editorializing. Every direct quote doesn’t need attribution if it’s clear who’s talking.

For feature stories, use present-tense says and say with a quotation: The athletic centre was closed, he says. Reserve past-tense said for news releases: The athletic centre was closed, he said. Use said when referring to someone’s statement without direct attribution: He said the athletic centre would be closed.

When using a direct quote of more than one sentence, put the attribution after the first sentence. The reader is left hanging if the attribution doesn’t come until the second sentence or later. Putting the attribution later may be confusing when the piece refers to one person and then a quote from someone else is introduced.

For example:

Among his many accomplishments, Winegard has been a cabinet minister, president of the University of Guelph and a professor of engineering. He earned his PhD in 1952.

In the 1940s, there were no women in Canadian engineering programs. It was unheard of for women to apply to such programs, and I doubt they would have been accepted even if they had applied, said Prof. Val Davidson, Engineering.

In this case, leaving the attribution until after the second sentence misleads the reader into thinking the quote is from Winegard.

It’s also confusing for the reader when a piece has two quotes in succession from two people without immediately indicating that the speakers have changed.

Another example:

In the 1940s, there were no women in Canadian engineering programs, said Davidson.

It was unheard of for women to apply to such programs at that time, and I doubt they would have been accepted even if they had applied, added Winegard.

The reader’s initial confusion over the change in speakers would have been eliminated by starting the second paragraph with Added Winegard: or using some other transition.

Are words or sentences editorializing? Check your writing to ensure that you’ve attributed opinion to someone, rather than leaving an opinion masquerading as a fact.

Avoid saying the same thing twice, first in paraphrase and then in quotation.