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Agreement Errors: The Interrupting Clause

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Subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement are two of the most commonly-tested grammatical concepts on the ACT and SAT. On the surface, these ideas seem relatively simple. Subject and verbs must agree in number. Pronouns and their antecedents must agree in number and gender. However, the ACT and especially the SAT do everything they can to make identifying these basic parts of speech artificially difficult. The chief tool that both exams employ to accomplish this is the same: the interrupting clause.

 

The Interrupting Clause in Action

An interrupting clause or phrase is any group of words that comes between the basic parts of speech in a sentence. The ACT and SAT use strategically-placed interrupting clauses in an attempt to make you misidentify the subject of a sentence. Here is a sentence similar to what you might see on the SAT:

 

The members of the opposition party was adamant that the president pass the immigration reform bill.

 

This sentence contains a simple subject-verb agreement error, but what exactly is the subject? If you answered “party,” then you were successfully fooled by the interrupting clause. The subject is actually “members.”

 

The Elimination Method

The simplest and most effect way to avoid falling for the interrupting clause “trap” is a process that I like to call the elimination method. Essentially, you cut the sentence down to its bare minimum, striking through everything except the subject, verb, and a handful of connecting words. Let’s try the elimination method on the sentence that we just looked at:

 

The members of the opposition party was adamant that the president pass the immigration reform bill.

 

Now we can see clearly that “members” is the subject and “was” is the verb. Since the subject is plural and the verb is singular, one of these must be changed to match the other.

 

The elimination method can help you to identify pronoun-antecedent agreement errors as well. By first clearly identifying the subject you can more-easily determine whether or not it agrees in gender and number with the object pronoun of a sentence:

 

The conference, faced with an onslaught of complaints from young women, decided that all of their attendees agree to a strict anti-harassment policy.

 

First, let’s eliminate everything except the subject and the verb:

 

The conference, faced with an onslaught of complaints from young women, decided that all of their attendees must agree to a strict anti-harassment policy.

 

We can see that the subject is “conference,” a group noun. In English, group nouns are considered singular “things.” Now let’s zero in on just the subject and the pronoun:

 

The conference, faced with an onslaught of complaints from young women, decided that all of their attendees must agree to a strict anti-harassment policy.

 

Using a plural pronoun such as “their” to refer to a group noun is an extremely common grammar error. It is the sort of error that native English speakers make in everyday conversation. The elimination method helps us to identify these kinds of agreement errors by focusing our attention directly on them. Errors that you may easily miss at first glance become obvious when you cut a sentence down to its barest essentials.

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