Grammatical Gray Areas: Subject-Complement Agreement

Filed in Ask the Editor, Writing Tips by on March 22, 2017 0 Comments

Celebrating National Grammar Day and National Proofreading Day

March is a month that calls for grammar nerds—like us—to celebrate. After all, March 4 is National Grammar Day, and March 8 is National Proofreading Day. On days like these, authors, editors, and proofreaders finally get the respect we deserve! (Oddly enough, I’m still waiting for my Grammar and Proofreading Day gifts to come flooding in. . .)

In all seriousness, we editors at Xulon Press have a passion for proper grammar usage. To celebrate grammar rules and style, we’d like to discuss a not-so-rare gray area that comes up frequently in nonfiction Christian writing: subject-complement agreement.

What is Subject-Complement Agreement?

The venerable Grammar Girl explains in her post “What Is Subject-Complement Agreement?,” quoting from The Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference, that “a complement . . . is a noun that completes meaning.” Pretty simple, right? Sometimes . . .  but not always.

We often see cases where a plural subject could either have a plural or singular complement—and still sound awkward no matter which you choose. For example, I recently found this sentence in a manuscript I was editing: “Through His work in the heart of sinners, God transforms them into His image and likeness.”

In the sentence above, the author means that God changes the one heart of each individual sinner. But obviously this has happened (and still happens) to an innumerable plural group over the history of humanity. So, do we use singular heart to show that each sinner only has one heart to be worked on? Or do we use plural hearts to show that God works on many different hearts simultaneously?

A Subjective Solution

While editors like black-and-white grammar rules, many decisions in editing come down to personal preference, maintaining the author’s voice, and striving for clarity for the reader.

In our example above, some readers may think “His work in the heart of sinners” sounds normal, while others might think it sounds awkward. Either heart or hearts could be used, pleasing some and confusing others.

But we like to go beyond what’s simply acceptable to make sure that each sentence sounds natural. For that reason, many editors propose a simple—but not often utilized—solution: reorder the sentence to remove the problematic phrasing!

Our sentence above could easily be rearranged to present a singular subject with a singular complement: “God transforms the sinful man into His likeness by working on his heart.”

In closing, we invite you to celebrate National Grammar Day and National Proofreading Day by reflecting on the fact that sometimes grammar doesn’t have hard-and-fast rules—and that’s when it gets interesting!

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About the Author ()

Amy brings experience from her work with the Minnesota Book Awards, Milkweed Editions, the University of Minnesota Press, Ivory Tower Magazine, and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Writing. Before joining Xulon Press in 2016, she marketed academic religion textbooks and reference resources with Fortress Press in Minneapolis. Amy’s love for books began at an early age, and she went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities with a BA in English literature with studies in technical writing. She enjoys creative nonfiction, poetry, contemporary fiction, and literary classics.

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