Editing I: Usage

You run your composition through your mind until your tuning fork is still. — Martin Amis, English-born writer (b. 1949)

The next three lessons will deal with editing. Just as we broke the writing process into manageable units so that we could effectively focus on one thing at a time, we can further subdivide the editing process. If you were to read repeatedly through your composition, looking vaguely for anything you might want to change, you would be trying to attend to so many things simultaneously that errors would go undetected. Focusing on one area at a time, however, can improve your effectiveness. As you gain experience with editing, you may gradually increase the number of things you can check simultaneously.

Complete instruction in grammar, usage, and mechanics is well beyond the scope of this course. This is where you will use the English handbook that was listed as a course requirement. While some frequently troublesome concepts will be explained within the lesson, you might need to consult your handbook for background information or for additional explanation and/or examples.

There is no magic sequence of editing that works best; many of the skills are, in fact, interrelated. As you gain experience, you might develop a preference for a particular sequence.

Before we examine usage, we will look briefly at paragraphs and sentences.


Paragraphs are a great help to the reader. Not only do they break long discourse into manageable chunks, they also help the reader to know when you are moving to a slightly different aspect of your topic. There is no perfect length for a paragraph. In fact, it is effective to vary paragraph length. Examining paragraphing in the early lessons of this course will help you see how to paragraph effectively.

It is helpful for your reader to know how paragraphs are related to each other. For example, if you are discussing several reasons that support your main idea, you might signal each reason with a phrase such as the first reason or the second reason. Discussion of each reason might well be broken into several paragraphs. Again, signal words — such as for example, furthermore, and on the other hand — can be a valuable guide to your reader. Synonyms, pronouns, and repeated words can also help to tie your paragraphs — and even your sentences — together, giving your piece “coherence.” If you did not write your first draft in sequence, it will be especially important to check for smooth transitions between ideas.


A paragraph is made up of sentences. A complete sentence includes a subject and a verb, and expresses a complete thought. If you suspect that you have difficulty writing complete sentences, study the information in your handbook on these topics: sentences, complete; clauses, independent; clauses, dependent; subject; predicate; fragments (might be a subpoint under “sentences”); and run-ons (might be a subpoint under “sentences”). Although experienced writers occasionally deviate from rules of conventional writing (such as by writing an incomplete sentence), that should only be done deliberately for effect, never carelessly or ignorantly. Techniques of coherence discussed in the paragraph above also apply to sentences. The reader should be carried from one sentence to the next, always being shown the relationship between ideas, never being shifted abruptly from one topic to another.


Usage concerns use of the right word. This is especially likely to involve verbs, pronouns, and modifiers, since these words have different forms that are needed in different situations.

Subject-Verb Agreement: The subject and verb of a sentence must “agree in number.” They must either both be singular or both be plural. While we know that most plural nouns end in s, we may not realize that most verbs ending in s are singular. One of these verbs would have as its subject a third-person pronoun (he, she, or it) or a singular noun.

Singular: The bird chirps. The bee buzzes.

Plural: Birds chirp. Bees buzz.

In most sentences you would probably have no problem with subject-verb agreement. Several tricky situations, however, require analysis.

1. Intervening prepositional phrase. The verb must agree with the subject, not with any other noun in the sentence. (The subject of a sentence will never be in a prepositional phrase.)

A network of nerves carries messages throughout the body. [The subject (network) and verb (carries) are both singular. The prepositional phrase of nerves has no bearing on the subject-verb agreement of the sentence.]

The pollution of air and water threatens our environment. [singular subject (pollution) and verb (threatens) regardless of compound object (air and water)]

Different rules govern subjects that indicate number:

Half of the apples were spoiled. [Since half here refers to a plural entity (apples), it also is plural and requires a plural verb (were).]

Half of the apple was spoiled. [Here half refers to a singular thing (apple). Half of that singular thing is also singular and requires a singular verb (was).]

A number of people were affected by the layoffs. [The phrase a number of, since it means “some” or “many,” takes a plural verb.]

The number of people affected by the layoffs was huge. [The phrase the number of, which suggests a specific number, takes a singular verb.]

2. Indefinite pronouns. The following indefinite pronouns are singular: each, either, neither, anyone, anybody, everyone, everybody, no one, nobody, someone, somebody. When used as a subject, each of these words requires a singular verb. A personal pronoun referring to one of these words should also be singular.

Each of the candidates advocates fiscal responsibility.

Everyone votes for the candidate of his or her choice. [Although English desperately needs a third person singular possessive pronoun of common gender, it is unlikely to get one. Their is often used and is gaining acceptance, even though it is technically incorrect. In situations such as this, the best choice is often to avoid the problem by recasting the sentence in the plural.]

All people vote for the candidate of their choice.

The following indefinite pronouns may be either singular or plural, depending on what they refer to in the sentence: all, any, most, none, some. This works the same way that half worked in #1 above.

Some of the citizens object to the plans for a new stadium. [Since citizens is plural, some (which refers to citizens) is also plural.]

Some of the excitement of being on vacation wears off after the first three days. [Since excitement is singular, some (which refers to excitement) is also singular.]

3. Compound subjects. Two or more subjects may be joined by and or or. Subjects joined by and (whether they are singular or plural) will be plural (1 + 1 = 2). Plural subjects joined by or will be plural (2 or 2 = 2); singular subjects joined by or will be singular (1 or 1 = 1):

Education or the economy is likely to be the biggest issue in the election.

When a singular subject and a plural subject are joined by or, the verb agrees with the subject closer to it so that the sentence sounds better:

Neither the moderator nor the panelists understand the question.

Neither the panelists nor the moderator understands the question.

Words such as with, plus, and as well as do not compound the subject:

The chairperson, along with the rest of the committee, recommends the purchase.

If a plural subject is meant, this kind of sentence may more effectively be written as a compound:

The chairperson and the rest of the committee recommend the purchase.

4. Sentences beginning with There. Identifying the subject of such sentences can be tricky since the subject follows the verb. To find the subject, ask yourself, “Who or what is?” or “Who or what are?” (There can never be a subject.) Identification of the subject is necessary to ensure subject-verb agreement:

There are three ways to solve the problem.

5. Words that appear to be plural. Some words that appear to be plural (because they end in s) are really singular. These are likely to be amounts, titles, or the names of diseases or school subjects:

One hundred dollars is too much to spend for a meal. [considered as one amount rather than as separate dollars]

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa is the official march of the United States. [one title, even though it includes plural nouns]

Rickets is a disease that results from a deficiency of Vitamin D or calcium.

Physics includes the study of light, heat, sound, mechanics, and electricity.

These are by no means the only issues that affect subject-verb agreement. In addition, you will want to be sure to use the proper form of irregular verbs (those that form their past and past participle in some way other than by adding -ed). Forms of irregular verbs are included in many English handbooks. They are also shown in dictionary entries — usually in boldface type near the beginning of the entry for the base word.

Subject and Object Pronouns: Subject and object pronouns are most likely to cause problems when they are part of a compound. Two things can help you use the correct pronoun: (1) identifying how the pronoun is functioning in the sentence and (2) deciding which pronoun you would use if it were not part of a compound.

Each kind of pronoun has its own jobs to do. Subject pronouns (1) serve as the subject of a sentence and (2) are used after linking verbs. There are only seven subject pronouns: I, we, you, he, she, it, they. No other pronoun can correctly serve as the subject of a sentence.

Object pronouns serve as the direct object, the indirect object, or the object of a preposition. (If these functions are unfamiliar to you, consult your English handbook.) There are only seven object pronouns: me, us, you, him, her, it, them. No other pronoun can correctly serve as an object in a sentence.

Notice these correct sentences:

He and I are serving as co-chairs of the fund-raising drive. [compound subject]

It was she who first brought the matter to our attention. [after linking verb]

This letter is for him and her. [compound object of preposition]

Mom drove them and us home from the game. [compound direct object]

Grandma sent him and me postcards from Europe. [compound indirect object]

If some of these sentences sound wrong to you, try each pronoun separately.

Remember that a subject and object pronoun will never be used together in a compound. Words will be compounded only if they have the same function, and if they have the same function, they will either both be subjects or both be objects.

Parallelism: Parallelism uses the same grammatical structure to express similar ideas. In addition to making a sentence sound balanced, parallelism helps the reader know which ideas have equal significance.

Elements with the same grammatical structure are often joined by one of the seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet. These words may join clauses, phrases, or single words (of the same part of speech):

We played well, but we lost the game. [independent clauses]

over the river and through the woods [prepositional phrases]

The flag of the United States of America is red, white, and blue. [adjectives]

Notice this sentence with faulty parallelism:

I enjoy basketball, playing football, and to go swimming. [The series includes a noun, a participial phrase, and an infinitive.]

The easiest way to make the series parallel is to use three nouns:

I enjoy basketball, football, and swimming.

Certain pairs of words, called “correlative conjunctions,” require the same grammatical construction after each word in the pair. Common pairs of correlative conjunctions are either and or, both and and, neither and nor, and not only and but also. Notice this sentence that includes a common error:

We will either go to Colorado or Virginia. [Either is followed by a verb phrase; or is followed by a noun.]

Several corrections are possible:

We will go either to Colorado or to Virginia. [either and or followed by prepositional phrases]

We will go to either Colorado or Virginia. [either and or followed by nouns]

Being familiar with the rules of usage will enable you to edit your writing more quickly and more confidently. Correct usage will make your message easier to understand and will create a favorable impression.

Next Week: Editing II: Punctuation

Assignment (Refer to your handbook as needed.)

A. Be sure your composition is effectively divided into paragraphs.

B. Check to see that pronouns, synonyms, and repeated words make both your sentences and your paragraphs coherent.

C. Be sure that all sentences are complete. Check further to be sure that each sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with appropriate punctuation.

D. Study the sections of your handbook that have to do with usage of verbs, pronouns, and modifiers. Be sure you understand the concepts in this lesson and underlying basic principles.

E. Edit your composition for the following, focusing on one at a time:
1. Agreement of subjects and verbs
2. Use of the correct pronouns
3. Parallelism
If you are uncertain about some areas of your composition, discuss them with your conferring partner or someone else who has the required expertise.

Lecture 4 Quiz