Usage Errors Study Guide: Pre-GED Language Arts, Writing (page 6)
The practice quiz for this study guide can be found at:
This article will help you to recognize correct usage of verbs and pronouns, and correct errors in subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and pronoun reference.
On the writing portion of the GED, 30 percent of the questions address usage errors. You will be expected to recognize correct grammar and make revisions to errors in subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and pronoun reference. As you already know, every sentence has a subject and a verb. The subject tells who or what the sentence is about; the verb tells who/what the subject is or does. Pronouns are words that take the place of a noun. Consider the following sentences:
Rinaldo watched a movie on TV. During commercials, Rinaldo folded laundry.
These sentences are about Rinaldo, so he is the subject. Watched and folded tell what he did, so these are the verbs.
Rinaldo watched a movie on TV. During commercials, he folded laundry.
Notice that in the previous example, the word he takes the place of Rinaldo in the second sentence. He is a pronoun. In this chapter, we will review agreement of these parts of speech. We will also review other rules of verb and pronoun usage that you will be expected to know.
Every sentence has a subject. Sometimes the subject is singular, which means the sentence is about one person or thing; other times the subject is plural, meaning the sentence is about more than one subject. Let's take a look at the following sentence:
Lola hosted the event. Ivan and Nicole were on the guest list.
The first sentence has a singular subject, Lola. The second sentence has more than one subject, Ivan and Nicole. Verbs can be singular or plural as well. Subject-verb agreement simply means that singular subjects must have a singular verb and plural subjects must have plural verbs. Consider the following sentences:
Mr. Robbins is my English teacher.
Ms. Patel and Mrs. Rodriguez are my math teachers.
The verb is is a singular verb, which agrees with the singular subject in the first sentence. The verb are is a plural verb, which agrees with the plural subject in the second sentence.
Now it's your turn to practice. Use what you know about subject-verb agreement to answer the following question. Which correction should be made to the following sentence?
My cousins works at the movie theater on Lincoln Street.
- insert three before cousins
- replace cousins with aunt and uncle
- insert will before works
- replace works with work
- replace works with goes to
This sentence has a plural subject, so it must have a plural verb. The corrected sentence would be My cousins work at the movie theater on Lincoln Street. The singular verb in the original sentence, works, needs a singular subject, as in Jannelle works at the movie theater on Lincoln Street.
Agreement in Number
Sometimes a group of people may be considered singular. For example, businesses, teams, and institutions are singular. Take a look at the following sentences:
The University believes all students should receive and equal education.
The court was in session all day. It begins again at 8:00 tomorrow morning.
Notice that singular verbs are used in these sentences. Also notice that the court is replaced by the pronoun it, not they, reinforcing the fact that the court is singular. Other examples of singular subjects include:
- George Washington High School
- Pacific Coast Medical Center
- Franco's Bait and Tackle Shop
- The Dallas Cowboys
There are also times when a verb form is the subject of a sentence. A gerund is a verb which ends in –ing and serves as a noun, as in the following sentences:
Talking is not permitted during the test.
Arriving at school before the first bell has many advantages.
Notice that these gerunds are singular subjects, and they use singular verbs.
When the words either or neither are the subject of a sentence, they are singular, unless followed by or and nor. Either… or and neither…nor are plural subjects, as in the following sentences:
Either of the times is convenient.
Neither Wednesday nor Saturday appointments are available.
Either is the singular subject of the first sentence because it does not appear with the word or. Neither is the plural subject of the second sentence because it is followed by the word nor.
That seems simple enough, doesn't it? Let's go a little further. When either and neither are paired with or and nor, they serve as correlative conjunctions, meaning that they are used to link two words together. The words they link must be the same type; nouns can be linked to nouns, verbs can be linked to verbs, and adjectives can be linked to adjectives. Common pairs of correlative conjunctions include:
When a sentence contains correlative conjunctions, you must determine whether the subject closest to the verb is singular or plural. Take a look at the following sentence:
Whether the students or their teacher is talking, everyone should listen respectfully.
Students and teacher are the subjects in this sentence. These nouns are joined by the correlative con-junctions whether… or. Since teacher is the subject closest to the verb, and teacher is singular, the verb is singular. There are times when it can be difficult to determine whether a noun is singular or plural. The following are plural nouns, which require a plural verb when used as the subject of a sentence:
When the words scissors, pliers, pants, or trousers are preceded by the words pair of, the subject of the sentence is pair, which is singular. Other singular nouns include:
With these guidelines in mind, take a look at the following examples:
Pliers are required for this project.
His striped pants were torn.
That pair of pants is ripped.
Mathematics is his favorite subject.
Collective nouns can be tricky sometimes, too. When we think of collective nouns as a group, they are singular, and usually this is the case. However, on the occasion that collective nouns are thought of as individuals, they are plural. Consider the following sentences using the collective noun dozen:
A dozen cookies is plenty for the meeting.
A dozen people are expected to attend.
We usually think of a dozen cookies as a group, so in the first sentence, the collective noun is singular. However, we usually think of people as individuals, so the collective noun is plural. Collective nouns to watch out for include:
These nouns can be made plural, such as classes, families, or groups, and would use plural verbs, as follows:
Our family lives in Portland.
Three families live on our street.
Think about what we've reviewed regarding subject-verb agreement, and try answering the following question.
Which correction should be made to the following sentence?
During halftime, the marching band always play and the drill team performs.
- insert neither after halftime
- replace marching with symphonic
- replace play with plays
- replace team with teams
- replace performs with perform
Band is a collective noun, meaning it is singular and needs a singular verb. Notice that team is also a collective noun and needs a singular verb, performs.
There are times when a singular noun may be the subject of a sentence but the subject is modified by a phrase that contains a plural noun, as follows:
The ability of the students was impressive.
Ability is the subject of the sentence, not students. Since ability is singular, the sentence requires a singular verb. If the subject of the sentence had been the abilities of the students, a plural verb would have been needed. The sentence would then be The abilities of the students were impressive.
Often, the modifying phrase that interrupts a sentence is a prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases begin with a preposition, such as about, at, of, off, on, to, before, or in, and end with a noun or pronoun. When prepositional phrases come between the subject and verb in a sentence, it can be difficult to identify the subject. Take a look at the following sentence:
The house at the corner of Elm and Maple streets is ours.
Read the sentence without the interrupting phrase. This will make it easier to identify the subject and determine the correct verb for the sentence.
The house is ours.
By removing the interrupting phrase, you can see that house is the subject, and that it requires a singular verb.
Often, phrases such as together with appear in a sentence and seem to join subjects, yet this is not actually the case. Phrases such as along with and as well as are not conjunctions; therefore, they do not join subjects to create plural subjects. Take a look at the following sentence:
Marcus, as well as his brother and sister, was at the pep rally Friday after school.
Marcus is a singular subject. The phrase as well as does not cause his brother and sister to be subjects. Therefore, a singular verb is used. A plural verb would be needed if all three of the people mentioned were subjects, as in Marcus, his brother, and his sister were at the pep rally.
Now it's your turn. Practice what you've learned about interrupting phrases by answering the following question.
Which correction should be made to the following sentence?
The concern of the parents are that the students will be crossing the street.
- replace concern with fear
- replace parents with families
- replace are with is
- replace will be with is
- replace crossing with to cross
A prepositional phrase interrupts the subject and verb in this sentence. The subject of the sentence is concern, which is singular. This means a singular verb is needed. The phrase of the parents does not affect this. If the subject of the sentence was parents, a plural verb would be needed, as in the sentence The parents are concerned.
Usually, the subject comes before the verb in a sentence. However, there are times when the verb precedes the subject. This inverted structure can make it a little more difficult to identify the subject, as in the following sentences:
Are Sumi and Brendan going to the library after school?
Were they planning to go, I would like to go with them.
Not only do we have a lot of homework, but we also need to check out books.
Notice that the first example is a question. The plural verb are precedes the subjects, Sumi and Brendan. The second example includes a conditional clause in which the verb were precedes the subject they. The third example begins with a restrictive phrase that includes the verb do followed by the subject we. Other restrictive phrases include never, seldom, rarely, and hardly ever. Look for inverted subject and verb order in sentences beginning with these phrases.
Sentences that begin with here or there are also examples of inverted structure. The words here and there are never the subjects of a sentence. When a sentence begins with an expletive construction, such as there is or here are, the subject comes after the verb. A singular subject requires a singular verb, and plural subjects require plural verbs, regardless of their placement in the sentence. Consider the following sentence:
There are many occasions that require guests to wear formal attire.
The subject of this sentence, occasions, is plural, so the sentence needs a plural verb. It does not matter that the verb (are) appears before the subject in this sentence.
Now it's your turn. Practice what you've learned about inverted structure by answering the following question.
Which correction should be made to the following sentence?
Seldom have he ever been absent from school on a day when the teacher is giving an exam.
- replace have with has
- replace he with she
- move he to the beginning of the sentence
- replace teacher with teachers
- replace is with are
Don't let the order of the words fool you. The subject of the sentence is he, which is singular, and requires a singular verb. Has is a singular verb.
Verbs help readers know when the action in a sentence happens. Verb tense indicates time, as in the following sentences:
I am running around the block one final time, and am getting tired.
I ran two miles already.
I will run two more miles tomorrow.
The verbs in these sentences indicate something that is happening in the present, in the past, and in the future. Verb tense gives a timeline to the actions in a sentence.
Sequence of Tenses
In simple sentences, verb tense seems pretty straight-forward. However, it can cause confusion in more complex sentences. In order to correctly use verb tense, it is important to understand the sequence of tenses:
- Simple present tense shows an action that is currently happening, or that happens regularly.
- Present perfect tense shows an action that began in the past but continues in the present (or its effect continues in the present).
- Simple past tense shows action that has already taken place.
- Past perfect tense shows a past action that was completed before another action.
- Simple future tense shows an action that has not happened yet, but will occur in the future.
- Future perfect tense shows an action that will have been completed by a specified time in the future.
Perfect tense verbs combine a past tense verb with have or has. Look at the following sentences:
Raven led the debate team for three years.
Raven has led the debate team for three years.
The first sentence is in the simple present tense, and indicates that Raven is finished leading the team. The second is in the present perfect tense, and indicates that Raven began leading the team in the past, and continues to do so now. Let's take a look at a few more examples:
Sergio answered the phone when his mom entered the room.
Sergio had answered the phone when his mom entered the room.
The first sentence in this pair is in the simple past tense, and indicates that Sergio waited until his mom came in to answer the phone. The second is in the past perfect tense, and indicates that Sergio had already answered the phone when his mom came in. Here are a few more examples:
Tomorrow David will finish his book report.
By tomorrow, David will have finished his book report.
The first sentence in this pair is in the future tense and indicates that David will finish the report tomorrow. The second is in the future perfect tense and indicates that David will have already finished it by tomorrow.
Why is all of this important to know for the GED writing assessment? Verb tense should be consistent, and clearly tell the reader when an action or event took place. You will need to read a passage and determine which verb tenses are consistent with the information in the passage.
Look at the following sentences:
(1)Yesterday, Luisa and I met with our study group after school. (2)We completed our practice questions for science and prepared for our algebra quiz. (3)Then, we are going to my house. (4)We changed clothes, and my mom took us to the mall. (5) We want to see the new action movie at the theater. (6) It was great!
Most of the events in this passage took place yesterday, which is in the past. However, sentence (3) is written in simple future tense, and sentence (5) is written in simple present tense. Remember, verb tense should be consistent throughout a passage. One way to correct this passage is to change the verb in sentence (3) to simple past tense, and to change the verb in sentence (5) to present perfect tense, as follows:
(1)Yesterday, Luisa and I met with our study group after school. (2)We completed our practice questions for science, and prepared for our algebra quiz. (3)Then, we went to my house. (4)We changed clothes, and my mom took us to the mall. (5) We had wanted to see the new action movie at the theater. (6) It was great!
When a sentence contains two clauses, the verb tenses must work together. Let's look at an example:
We will plan a party for her birthday, and invited all of her friends.
The first clause is in the future tense, and the second is in the past, so this sentence does not make sense. The party has not yet been planned, so the friends would not have been invited. Using the same verb tense in both clauses would make more sense:
We will plan a party for her birthday, and will invite all of her friends.
Clues to Find Tense
Often, you will be able to find clues in sentences that indicate which verb tense should be used. Words such as yesterday and last year probably indicate past tense. Right now and currently probably indicate present tense. Someday and tomorrow probably indicate future tense. Take a look at the following sentence:
As of now, forty-eight students are sitting in the bleachers.
The words as of now indicate present tense, so a present tense verb is included.
Here are a few ways to determine which verb tense should be used:
- Look for clues. Look for clue words in the sentence and in the rest of the passage.
- Read carefully. Be sure to read the entire sentence or passage so you can choose a verb that matches the tense of the other verbs.
- Pay attention. Pay careful attention to the message of the sentence or passage. It can give clues about the timing of events and which verb tenses should be used.
Now that you've reviewed verb tense, try answering the following question. Which correction should be made to the following sentence?
Tomorrow, we ate pizza for dinner and will have ice cream for dessert.
- replace Tomorrow with yesterday
- replace ate with have eaten
- replace ate with are eating
- replace ate with will eat
- replace will have with had
There are two clues regarding verb tense in the sentence. First, the word tomorrow indicates future tense. Second, the verb will have indicates future tense. So, the past tense verb ate should be changed to future tense so it is consistent with the rest of the sentence.
Verbs can either be active or passive. These verb forms indicate who is performing the action in a sentence. In a sentence that uses active verbs, the subject is doing the action. In a sentence with a passive verb, the subject is receiving the action. Take a look at the following sentences:
Selena washed the dog.
The dog was washed by Selena.
In both of these examples, the verb washed represents the action. However, in the first sentence, the subject, Selena, is completing the action. In the second sentence, the subject, the dog, is being acted upon. Therefore, the first sentence is active and the second is passive. Passive sentences indicate that the subject who is receiving the action is more important than the person or thing actually doing the action.
On the GED, you should typically change passive verb forms to active. Go ahead and try it. Try answering the following question:
Which is the best way to restate the underlined portion of the following sentence? If no revisions are necessary, select answer choice a.
In the gym, the bleachers were set up by the sophomores before the game.
- the bleachers were set up by the sophomores
- the bleachers were assembled by the sophomores
- the sophomores were set up by the bleachers
- the sophomores set up the bleachers
- the sophomores have been set up by the bleachers
For the sentence to use an active verb form, the sophomores must be the subject since they performed the action. The sophomores are the subject of answer choices c and e, but these sentences state that they were acted upon by the bleachers, which is incorrect. In an active sentence, the subject must perform the action.
As noted earlier, pronouns can take the place of a noun. The nouns that are replaced are called antecedents. Using pronouns can improve writing by making it less repetitive. Take a look at the following sentences:
Manina is a graceful dancer because Manina has taken ballet lessons for years.
Manina is a graceful dancer because she has taken ballet lessons for years.
In the second sentence, she is the pronoun and Manina is the antecedent. Pronouns such as I, it, he, she, they, we, who, and you can be the subject of a sentence and are known as subject pronouns. Other pronouns include her, hers, him, his, its, me, mine, my, our, ours, their, theirs, us, whose, your, and yours. Take a look at the following sentence:
Reggie and her work at the ice skating rink on the weekends.
Sometimes, when a pronoun is the subject of a sentence, recognizing whether the pronoun is singular or plural can get a little bit tricky. Indefinite pronouns can stand for more than one subject, yet some are considered singular and require a singular verb. Consider the following sentence:
Everyone has an invitation to the party.
Everyone is a singular indefinite pronoun. Despite the fact that it refers to multiple people, it is singular and uses a singular verb. Singular indefinite pronouns include:
At times, a singular indefinite pronoun may be followed by a prepositional phrase that includes a plural noun. Often, these phrases come between a pronoun and verb, but this does not change the fact that the pronoun requires a singular verb. Let's look at the following sentence:
Everyone in both classes is available to help with the car wash.
Notice that classes is plural. However, everyone is singular, so the sentence uses a singular verb. Some indefinite pronouns can be either singular or plural, depending on the nouns or pronouns they replace. Examples of these indefinite pronouns include:
Look at the nouns that indefinite pronouns refer to in the following sentences:
Some of the money is in his wallet.
None of the quarters are in her purse.
In the first sentence, some refers to money, which is singular. Therefore, the sentence requires a singular verb. In the second sentence, none refers to quarters, which is plural. So, the sentence requires a plural verb.
Agreement with Antecedents
Pronouns and antecedents must agree according to number. This means that a singular pronoun is used to take the place of a singular antecedent, and a plural pronoun is used to take the place of a plural antecedent. Let's look at the following sentence:
Any senior wanting to audition for the chorus needs to have their sheet music.
The antecedent senior is singular, and the pronoun their is plural, so these words do not agree. This can be corrected by either using a singular pronoun or a plural antecedent. The following examples show possible corrections:
Any senior wanting to audition for the chorus needs to bring his or her sheet music.
Seniors wanting to audition for the chorus need to bring their sheet music.
Relative pronouns are used to join clauses and create complex sentences. These pronouns—such as that, when, where, which, who, whom, whose, and why—appear at the beginning of a subordinate clause and offer information about the main clause. Take a look at the following sentences:
This is the place where I met my best friend.
The team whose captain broke his leg will play again this weekend.
When selecting a relative pronoun, which is considered to be more formal than that, and either one of these words is appropriate in many situations. However, that should be used after the pronouns all, any, anything, every, everything, few, little, many, much, no, nothing, none, some, and something. Let's look at the following sentences:
Here is the book that/which I promised to loan you.
Is there anything that we can do to help you?
That should also be used after words such as declare, hope, say, state, suggest, think, and write, when these verbs are used to answer the question What?. That should also follow nouns modified by superlative adjectives (like best) and ordinal numbers (like second or third). Consider the following sentences:
The professor suggested that we take notes on his lecture. He is the fastest speaker that I have ever heard. The first thing that I understood was the information written on the board.
That should also be used when the main clause contains a verb that is a form of be, as follows:
The deed to his house is a document that is of great importance.
Which should be used when the clause refers to the entire previous clause, as follows:
My parents planned a weekend vacation for our family, which surprised me.
Either that or who can be used to refer to a person. The pronoun whom is more formal than who and is not often used in American English. However, whom cannot be removed from the sentence if it follows a preposition. Look at the following sentences:
He is the one that/who called me last night.
The woman who you are asking for is the doctor.
She is the doctor for whom you have been asking.
Pronouns and antecedents must also agree according to person. First person pronouns replace antecedents that are in the first person; third person pronouns replace antecedents that are in the third person. Second person antecedents are replaced by second person pronouns. A pronoun shift occurs when the writer begins a sentence or paragraph using one type of pronoun, then shifts to using another type. Let's look at the following sentences:
If they want to go on the field trip, you must bring a permission slip.
When we asked the teacher for extra credit, we were told you could earn extra points by researching current events.
The first sentence begins using a third person pronoun, they, then shifts to a second person pronoun, you. The second sentence uses a first person pronoun, we, then shifts to second person. To correct this, the entire sentence, paragraph, or passage must retain the same point of view, as follows:
If students want to go on the field trip, they must bring a permission slip.
When we asked the teacher for extra credit, we were told we could earn extra points by researching current events.
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