Don’t Think about the Beginning (for Once!)

There’s a good chance that you were exposed to formal grammar at some point in your schooling. You might have underlined subjects and verbs, labeled independent and dependent clauses, or tried to memorize pronoun and verb charts.

Many English teachers believe that grammatical terminology is one of the keys to better writing. I strongly disagree. Learning how to rebuild an automobile doesn’t ensure that you’ll know what to do at a flashing red light. And circling an adverbial clause doesn’t guarantee that you can organize and present information effectively.

But don’t you need to understand the parts of sentences? My answer is a strong no. If you grew up speaking English, you quickly discovered that the doer almost always comes first in a sentence. Even small children know that “Jane fed the cat” means something quite different from “The cat fed Jane.”

When you’re working on a writing task, it’s usually safe to assume that the important stuff is going to appear at the beginning of the sentence. Take a look at this example:

Misuse of prescription drugs cause/causes many serious medical problems.

Which is right – cause or causes? If you know the “go to the beginning” rule, you’ll make the right choice: Misuse…causes.

Misuse of prescription drugs causes many serious medical problems.  CORRECT

Prescription drugs can be lifesavers. They’re not the problem: misuse is.

But there’s an exception you should know about. In either/or, neither/or sentences, you need to skip the beginning of the sentence. Jump over the either/neither part, and go straight to the or/nor part.

Either the teachers or the dean is/are going to present the award.

Either the teachers or the dean is/are going to present the award.

Either the teachers or the dean is going to present the award.  CORRECT

You can learn more about this rule (and other subject-verb rules) at this link.

A chalkboard that asks if I'm doing this right.


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