ERROR ANALYSIS – Third Person Singular Subject-Verb Agreement

I teach in a secondary school in Sanepa, Lalitpur. I have found that many students in the school commit the errors in “subject-verb agreement,” especially that of third person singular, even when they seem to know the grammar rules. Generally, in private schools, students start learning English grammar when they are in Grade Two and they do so throughout the school years. Despite learning and knowing the rules for multiple years, many students come up with sentences like “He have book….”, “Sir have the book……” etc., in both written and spoken form.

I carried out a mini-research from the perspective of  error analysis to find out the reasons why students commit these types of errors (the omission of simple present marker) and, importantly, to propose a remedy for the problem. I conducted this study among the 22 students of Class 9. For the same purpose, I told the students a story titled “Nashruddin and the donkey” and asked them to write the story from their memory. Since my focus of error analysis was to analyze the errors in subject-verb agreement, I told them the story in present tense and asked them to write the story as homework.

(What follows is a stripped down version of the mini-research, without citations and references.)

Error Identification:

After the students submitted their written work, I went through their work line by line and marked the errors in subject verb agreement. My first task was to determine if the errors done by each student were systematic errors or just random mistakes. Since most of the students made the same error consistently, I concluded that those were errors, not mistakes.

Here’s a sample table of the data that I collected.

Participant 1

Participant 2

Participant 3

Participant 4

Participant 5

Participant 6

All villagers calls him a stupid guy… He wokes up… He have a goose… The boys thinks… … the money he have… All the villagers calls him…
…two naughty boys sees that and tries to trick… There is two naughty boys. …he keep an secrecy… One of the boys untie the rope… One boy go along with… …and he realize that…
So, Nashruddin catch his ears… He sell all the… Nashruddin reaches home and turn back… … goes to buys a donkey… … needs a donkey to works in the farm…
… he kill the goose… Two naughty boys sees and tries to …
…he become very sad…

The above table illustrates that the students commit errors by omitting -s inflection from the third person singular verb in their attempt to make the verb agree with the singular subject like “he kill…” and “he become…”. And, they also add –s inflection with plural subjects.

Explanation of the errors

As you all know, we teach our students that  a verb must agree with its subject. We keep repeating: A singular subject takes a singular verb, likewise, a plural subject takes a plural verb. For instance, the third person pronouns such as “he, she and it” take a singular verb with the -s inflection as in “The boy eats…., She eats….”. Similarly, the plural subject and pronouns such as “I, We, You and They” just take the bare form of the verbs as in “I eat…. We eat….”.

Subject-verb Agreement in English and Nepali:

Subject-verb agreement means the verb will change its form depending on its subject. The subject of a verb may be singular or plural and it may be first-person (I, we) second-person (you – singular/plural), or third-person (he/she/it, they, dog, cats).

In English, in the present tense, a verb changes its form only when its subject is third-person singular (he/she/it). Here’s the confusion and a factor leading to over-generalization. The inflection –s can be used with both third person singular verbs as well as plural noun subjects. Whereas In Nepali, there are different inflectional makers for plural subjects and for verbs.

I walk. // We walk.
Ma hidchu // Hami hidchaun
You walk. // You walk.
Timi hidchau // Timi haru hidchaun
He walks. // She walks // It walks.
Tyo hidcha // Tini hidcha // Tyo hidcha
They walk.
Tini  haru hidchan
Dog walks. // Cat walks.
Kukkur hidcha // Biralo hidcha
Dogs walk.// Cats walk.
Kukkur haru hidchan // Biralo haru hidchan

While it might be hard to generalize, these contrasting rules seem to be causing a lot of confusion on the matter of subject-verb agreement.

Reasons for the errors:

Here are the possible reasons why the students make error in subject-verb agreement of third personal singular.

1)      L1 influence: possibility of structural interference

2)      Overgeneralization: the learner creates a generalized structure on the basis of a single rule of the target language.

3)      Erroneous input: the teacher makes similar mistakes and feeds wrong input to the learners

4)      Lack of enough comprehension of the rules of subject + verb agreement.

In addition to my own observation, I asked the students about their opinion on this type of error. When I explained the error analysis jargons to them and told them the possible reasons, they opined that it is because of mainly two reasons: over-generalization of the rules and lack of ‘conscious’ practice. In other words, they blame their ‘wrong habits’ as the reason for errors.

Here’s how they normally over-generalize. If sentences like I run… We run…. You run… are correct, the students have developed a habit of assuming that He run… She run… Rabi run… are also correct forms.

Plus, it has to do with native language interference as well. Here’s a case of verb “chha”. In Nepali, “chha” is used to express possession (have/has) in present tense. For example:

First person: Ma sanga gadi chha (I have a car.)
Second person: Timi sanga gadi chha (You have a car.)
Third person: Sir sanga gadi chha (Teacher has a car.)
Third person: Madan sanga gadi chha (Madan has a car.)
Third person plural: Sathi haru sanga gadi chha. (Friends have a car.)

The verb “chha” is used invariably with all forms of subjects – first person, second person or third person and with both singular or plural form. Since “chha” means both has as well as have in Nepali, students unconsciously transfer this concept into the production of English language.

A peculiar pattern

Interestingly, some participants not only removed simple present marker ‘s’ in the case of third person singular subject, they also added the same marker in the case of plural subjects as well. Here’s a sample from the Participant 1.

*All villagers calls him a stupid guy…
*…two naughty boys sees that and tries to trick…

And from the Participant 6.

*All the villagers calls him…
*Two naughty boys sees and tries to …

What these errors show is that there is a pattern among the students to do the opposite – i.e., to use the singular marker ‘s’ with plural subjects.

Let me try to explain this pattern, again from the first language interference point of view. In Nepali, when the subject is plural, the marker ‘chhan’ is suffixed with the verb.

For example:

Madan ghar janchha. (Madan goes home.)
Mera sathi haru ghar janchhan. (My friends go home.)

And since, the equivalent plural marker of ‘chhan’ is the suffix ‘s’ in English, students come up with sentences like “All the villagers calls him…..” by adding ‘s’ to the verbs as well. Just as the English rule says, plural subject requires plural verbs in present tense.

This puts the Nepali learners in a very confusing and complex situation. The Nepali rule of adding equivalent plural marker ‘chhan’ on the verb when the subject is plural contradicts or interferes with the English rules of removing plural marker ‘s’ from the verbs when the subject is plural.

Recommendation and Conclusion

I am in line with N.S. Prabhu that there is no best method (I’m applying this in a narrower sense here) . How I think of going about such errors is to have a mixed approach. Whatever works out fine in our individual context is the best way out. Experimentation is the key. In addition to that, it is illogical to assume that this error will be solved within a day or a week or a month. No one can be sure without further research (locally).

However, here’s what I think is a good approach to go about solving  common errors.

  • Raise the students’ awareness about common errors. In the present case, letting them know that present tense singular is a very common error and even professors at the university level commit this mistake occasionally might boost the morale of the students.
  • Explicit teaching and explicit error correction. Teach them rules and make them practice. Focus on form.
  • Implicit teaching. Give them enough comprehensible input, focusing on activities that enhance their understanding of tense and verb system of English
  • Provide ‘authentic’ opportunity for practice.
  • Mix different teaching methods. Bring varieties into the classroom.
  • And, most importantly, CONTEXTUALIZE. If students can relate to what they are learning, their retention will probably very high.

Because of the L1 interference and the tendency of over-generalization, Nepali students find the use of present tense marker complicated. They have to be constantly conscious of the contrasting rules of singular and plural subjects in Nepali and English.

So the first step to remedy this error might be to raise the students awareness about contrasting system of rules. They need to be conscious about these differences in Nepali and English structures, then practice the rules, develop a habit, in a hope that the habit eventually gains automaticity.

Another remedial step might be to implement Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis, which is to provide and expose the students to massive amount of inputs regarding the subject-verb agreement. Thus, the students might be able to acquire (and learn) the rules unconsciously and ultimately produce the correct forms. However, acquiring a language is not enough. The students should be given enough opportunity to practice in an authentic environment. Hence, authentic classroom activities implicitly focused on the form of third-person singular would help students overcome this error in time. We can follow possible steps for other common errors too.

Reflection

In my experience, I have seen students (and many teachers alike) from all level of classes committing this error. Even the students of Bachelor’s level frequently commit this error regarding subject-verb agreement. I was clueless about how to correct the students but now I have realized that teaching them the rules and correcting them is not enough. The students must be made aware of this type of error. And, with student’s conscious participation, remedial steps have to be taken.

I have seen many teachers jump to the conclusion that the students are not intelligent enough or hardworking enough and thus they make the errors. However, intelligence and hard-work might only be two insignificant factors out of so many other crucial variables that affect  second language learning. There are factors like language transfer, interference, lack of enough input, lack of opportunity to produce and use language, context, motivation, and so on. As language teachers, we need to give the benefit of doubt to the learners before condemning them on the basis of their personal ability. In fact, we ourselves are nowhere near competent enough and we commit errors on a different level than the students. (Plus, we are unaware of it.) If we are to expect better language competency from our students, we need to first change our own view towards teaching and learning a second language.

Umes Shrestha
Kathmandu University
www.latebecame.wordpress.com

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