Writing Tips: Dealing with number disagreement

Number disagreement is perhaps the most common mistake I encounter in my work as a writer. A part of the problem, I think, stems from the fact people don’t proof-read their own work properly. What’s perhaps more worrying still is that many writers don’t even realise they’re making a mistake in the first place!

I’ve outlined some common examples below…

Example one

They are the only major party to have increased its vote over the past five years…

Here, I hope the problem is obvious. Is the party plural or singular – should the party be referred to as ‘they’ or ‘its’? Either way, it can’t be both! This problem comes up quite a lot in my line of work, as companies are by definition, singular, so should certainly not be referred to as both ‘they’ and ‘its’. Technically, companies should always be ‘it’, but this isn’t necessarily always the case. Sometimes the style guide for the publication you’re writing for will stipulate that companies should be referred to as a plural (though this is the exception and not the rule). When working in marketing, there is also a further consideration to take in mind: voice. Sometimes a company will want to come across in a way that demands they are referred to in a plural sense. Small businesses in particular are often keen to differentiate themselves from their large corporate rivals, and so will adopt a tone and a semantic field that is far more personable and may involve the use of ‘they’ to give a sense of team, or community, while on odd occasions, there may even be call to use the word ‘we’. Whatever the case, consistency is key. Pick your perspective, and stick to it!

Example two

As terrorism and violence has ended, common issues such as crime and unemployment have loomed.

In this example we have a singular verb used in place of a plural. Because the mistake is made right next to the clause requires the use of a plural, this kind of mistake is easier to spot than others. Here, the writer is talking about terrorism and violence (i.e. two things = plural), thus it is incorrect to say that that they “has ended”.  To fix this sentence replace “has” with “have”:

As terrorism and violence have ended…

Example three

The materials and technology used in modern dental units over the past decade has improved rapidly…

Here, the problem is the same, but because the incorrect use of “has” comes in further along the sentence, the mistake is slightly more difficult to spot. The solution? Replace “has” (singular) with “have” (plural).

Example four

Suddenly everything I valued – my family, my future, my finances – were being threatened.

There’s a slight red herring in this example, as the list “my family, my future, my finances” might suggest that the use of “were” is correct to the untrained eye. However, the list is a parenthetical inclusion, the key here is “everything I valued” (singular). Try not reading the part between the en-dashes and the mistake becomes far easier to spot.

Conclusion

There is no hard and fast rule that will help you spot number disagreement. The main thing is to be logical and consistent. If you’re not sure about something, read it back to yourself, out loud if possible. If instinct tells you it doesn’t sound right, 80% of the time you’re probably right, so it’s best to check. Of course sometimes, even the most experienced of writer can make a mistake, but if you apply yourself consistently to your work, and you take the time to read carefully, and learn from not only your own mistakes, but also the mistakes of others, you will soon come to master one of the most common mistakes made in English journalism!

Further reading

Want to learn more about common grammatical mistakes? English for Journalists is a great book for reference, though you may need to read it in conjunction with other books as not all the examples are fully explained.

Got a question about any of the examples I’ve mentioned? Feel free to post a comment below.

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