Sentences have the following characteristics: they start with a capital letter; end with a full stop, exclamation mark or question mark; and contain a verb (doing word).
A common mistake made by non-native English speakers is not writing in full sentences (e.g. failing to provide a main clause in their “sentence”) or write very long, rambling sentences that would be better chopped into smaller ones. Short, clear sentences are usually more effective than those which are long and complex. If you are in any doubt, split up any longer sentences into two or three shorter ones.
Short sentences will help you avoid grammatical mistakes and make it easy for the reader to follow your line of argument. Each sentence that you write should make sense if it were read out independently of the sentence before and after it.
Subjects and verbs in sentences must agree with one another
If the subject of a sentence is singular, then the verb form must be singular as well:
The student passes the exam.
In this example the student is the subject. There is just one student, so the subject is singular. The verb is “to pass” and agrees with the singular subject. If this sentence described the activity of several students the subject would be plural, so the verb agreement would reflect this:
The students pass the exam.
Problems can occur with case agreement in two circumstances:
1. A statement begins in the singular, but drifts into the plural. The following sentence is incorrect:
An information manager needs to know whether they are doing their job properly.
The easiest solution to this problem is to make both the subject and verb plural:
Information managers need to know whether they are doing their jobs properly.
2. Collective nouns cause confusion. The following sentence is incorrect:
The government are passing new legislation.
Since there is just one government in the example given above, the sentence should read:
The government is passing new legislation.
Once you know this rule for written work, you will notice that in spoken English it is often broken. For example, would you say “There’s four of them here” or “There are four of them here”? Whilst this is acceptable in spoken English, it is not for formal written work.
Using the correct word
It is important that you use the right vocabulary in your work. The mistakes that crop up regularly in students’ work are usually due to confusion between two words such as:
– affect/effect, quote/quotation, practise/practice, license/licence (the first is the verb, the second is the noun);
– dependent and dependant (the first is an adjective, the second is a noun);
– alternate and alternative, principal and principle (these words have different meanings);
– less and fewer (less means less in quantity: there is less water than before. Fewer means smaller in number: there are fewer people than before).
Bear in mind that a spelling checker can identify spelling errors in your work, but will not pick up misused vocabulary.