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01 January 2013

Grammar: Enumeration Guidelines

Is this sentence correct?
I bought two apples, an imported reddish yellow mango from the Philippines, a big bunch of grapes, two cans of peaches, and a banana.

Many teachers tell students different rules on how to enumerate nouns in sentences.  In speaking, of course, the rules are flexible.  In formal writing, it is preferable that you follow an arrangement that will make your sentence clear, readable and less awkward.  Here are some of my guidelines.  They are not strict rules but I think they help make sentences more formal.

In enumerating (listing things or actions), put the shortest phrase first and the longest phrase at the end of the list (or start with the least number of words to the most number of words).

For example: 
I bought ________
- two apples (2 words)
- a banana (2 words)
- an imported reddish yellow mango from the Philippines (8 words) 
- a big bunch of grapes (5 words) 
- two cans of peaches (4 words)

More formal style: I bought a banana, two apples, two cans of peaches, a big bunch of grapes and an imported reddish yellow mango from the Philippines.

For example:I _____ the cat

List: The sentence will not focus on the sequence of actions but just the actions done.
- feed (1 verb)
- play with the cat every afternoon (6 words)
- wash (1 verb)
- brush the cat’s fur (5 words)

More formal style:  I feed and wash the cat, brush its fur and play with it every afternoon.

If the focus of the sentence is in the sequence, then ignore the length of the phrases. Start with what happened first, to what happened last. However, do not forget to put transition markers instead of commas.

- First - wash the cat
- Second - feed the cat
- Third - play with the cat every afternoon
- Fourth - brush the cat’s fur

Suggested rewrite:
I first wash the cat, feed it and then play with it every afternoon, and finally I brush its fur. 

Subject-Verb Agreement in Enumeration
Here is your list: 
- Scissors
- A piece of paper
- Two paper clips
- One cup
- Chocolate powder
- Cheese 

If the subject of the sentence is There, the verb should agree with the nearest item in the enumeration.  It depends on which item will you put first in the enumeration.   

If there is only one item, then the verb is singular.
1. There is a piece of paper on the table. 

If there are two or more items, obviously the verb should be plural
2. There are scissors and two paper clips on the table.  (The sentence sounds correct because scissors and two paper clips are in the plural form.) 

But if one of the items is singular (one cup) and the other is plural (two paper clips), it is more correct to put the plural noun first.
3. There are two paper clips and one cup on the table. 

It is the same with uncountable nouns (chocolate powder)
4.  There are two paper clips and chocolate powder on the table. 

Items connected by the conjunction "and" become plural.
5.  There are chocolate powder and cheese on the table (both items are uncountable noun) 

If the item is a collective noun, you can use a modifier to make it singular or plural.
6. There are scissors on the table /OR/ There is a pair of scissors on the table. 

If the items are being counted separately, then do it this way
7.   There is one cup on table.  There is a piece of paper on the chair and there are scissors on the floor.

There is one cup and a piece of paper in the room.    
(Now this sentence means that you are counting the items separately and the sentence is just a shortened version of "there's one cup and there is a piece of paper in the room."  The room is a bigger place than the table and so it seems more logical.  However, this kind of sentence is only acceptable in spoken English.  Perhaps, in spoken English, we can actually see the items in the room.)

Inverted sentences are even more problematic, so do not use them at all.
8. Examples
- On the table is a piece of paper.
- On the table are scissors and two paper clips.
- On the table is cheese

How do you improve this sentence?
There are one cup (singular) cheese (uncountable / singular) scissors (plural), a piece of paper (singular), two paper clips (plural) and chocolate powder (uncountable / singular) on the table.

If the sentence sounds awkward to you, you can rewrite it in two ways:

1. Put a plural noun as the first item on the list 
There are scissors (plural), one cup (singular) cheese (uncountable / singular) , a piece of paper (singular), two paper clips (plural) and chocolate powder (uncountable / singular) on the table. 

2. Remove "there" and rewrite the sentence:
Scissors, cheese, a piece of paper, two paper clips, one cup and chocolate powder are on the table.  

NOTE: We do not often begin a sentence with an indefinite noun; for example, "a cup."
A cup is on the table. 
Better: There is a cup on the table.
But: "The cups are on the table" is correct because "the cups" is a definite noun.

What about the conjunction"OR?"
If the items are connected by the conjunction "OR," the verb must agree with the nearest item.

The books or the table (singular) is going to be delivered today. The rest will be delivered tomorrow.

The books, the table or the chairs (plural) are going to be delivered today.  I can't remember which one.  (The comma represents "or.")


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