Strings of subjects or verbs require special care

When the subject is composed of a singular and a plural noun joined by or or nor, the verb agrees with the noun that is closer.

Incorrect: Neither the dogs nor the cat were in the cage when the assistant returned.

Correct: Neither the dogs nor the cat was in the cage when the assistant returned. OR Neither the cat nor the dogs were in the cage when the assistant returned.

When a single subject is coupled with more than one verb, auxiliaries such as was and were can safely be omitted with verbs after the first. Many writers shorten sentences by doing so. However, a problem can easily arise when this condensing technique is used for a sentence with more than one subject.

Single subject, auxiliary verbs omitted: Tissues were fixed in 10% buffered formalin, embedded in paraffin, cut, and stained with hematoxylin and eosin.

Two subjects, both plural, correct but confusing: Samples were obtained from kidneys and sections cut and stained with lead citrate. [Were samples taken from kidneys and sections?]

Improved by removing one subject: Kidney sections were cut, then stained with lead citrate.

If the number of the subject in the sentence changes, one must retain the verb in each clause. When two or more verbs are used with two subjects, one singular and one plural, keep the auxiliary words such as was and were with their verbs.

Incorrect: The positions of the tubes were reversed and the test repeated.

Correct: The positions of the tubes were reversed and the test was repeated.

The grammar of comparisons and lists

Most grammatical problems that occur with comparisons and lists arise from the omission of important words. When words are missing, the reader intuitively finds a parallelism among the words that are present. Strange, illogical comparisons sometimes result.

Nonparallel construction: These results were in general agreement with others who found increased mortality. [The Results and "others" cannot logically agree with one another.]

Parallel construction: These data and others' results generally agreed.

The need for clarity always outranks the need for brevity. When comparing two agents under two conditions, fully specify which items are being compared. In the second part of a parallel construction, include all the words necessary to complete the comparison.

When comparing one person or thing with the rest of its class, use a word such as other with the comparative. Do not compare one with all, for it could be misinterpreted as the sum of the others.

Incomplete comparisons: Solution A yielded more amino acids than protein. The trial was significantly longer. The animal's weight was greater than all the others.

Completed comparisons: Solution A produced a greater yield of amino acids than of protein. The trial was significantly longer than the other trials were. The animal weighed more than any of the other animals did.

When comparing only two things, use the comparative term (better, poorer, lesser, more) rather than the superlative (best, poorest, least, most).

Of the two medications, this is the less (not least) effective.

The brown dog was the sicker (not sickest) of the two.

DILBERT © Scott Adams/Dist. By United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

Some words are not comparable because they already represent the ultimate state - for example, full, impossible, correct, and unique.

Incorrect: A more correct evaluation would say that our study was the most unique of its kind.

Correct: A more nearly correct evaluation would say that our study was unique.

Check to ensure that the word as or than is next to the comparing word. Look carefully when you have a phrase set off by commas or parentheses in the middle of the comparison. Check your grammar by omitting the phrase. Does it still make sense? Moving than and adding another as will correct the problem.

Incorrect: Group A was as large, if not larger, than Group B. [Does "Group A was as large . . . than Group B"still make sense?]

Correct: Group A was as large as, if not larger than, Group B.

The grammar of lists

Lists carry their own sets of grammatical pitfalls. If there is an introductory preposition or article, either use it with only the first item or phrase in your list, or include it with every one. When some items take a and others take an, you must repeat the article with each item.

Group 1 included a salamander, an alligator, and a skink.

Do not categorize clients by sex, by age, or by birthplace on these forms.

The patient's skin exhibited a red rash, an itchy lump, and a scar.

If a list is not inclusive, introduce the series of words or phrases with such as. Alternatives like and e.g. are less desirable. Et cetera (etc.) is rapidly falling out of favor, and at any rate, should never be used with these phrases.

Incorrect: Laboratory animals, like rats, mice, gerbils, etc., were evaluated.

Correct: Laboratory animals such as rats, mice, and gerbils were evaluated.

For guidelines on punctuating lists, see Chapter 7.

Exercise 6.9. Collective nouns, comparisons, and lists


Write these sentences so that the collective noun or quantity is no

longer the subject.

1. Ten to 50 parts per million of chloramphenicol is an appropriate


2. A committee of scientists was convened by the university pres-


3. A total of 12 liters of serum were infused into the elephant by

the veterinarian.


Rewrite the following sentences to correct their comparisons and


1. The authors' mild pulmonary hypertensive stage was similar to

our present study.

2. In comparison to Group B, Group A was more unique.

3. The cat had a recovery that was better than the other cats.

4. The emergency medical kit contained a bandage, applicator,

towel, brush, and a rubber sponge.

5. The fox was heavier than all the other animals in the study


6. Of the two alternatives, this is the most interesting.

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