Learning Grammar through Reading: What Harry Potter Can Teach Us about English Grammar Rules (Week 4)

Subject–Verb Agreement and the Goblet of Fire

Dobby the house-elf sporting his socks.I’d like to start today’s lesson with a disclaimer: If you don’t find house-elves to be adorable in every way, you aren’t going to be a big fan of this post. But unless your name is Malfoy, I really doubt that’s going to be a problem.

So far in this series, we’ve covered homophones, commas, and interrogative sentences. Today’s Harry Potter lesson is going to look at subject–verb agreement. Or, as I like to call it, “that thing that no amount of magic can make Dobby learn.” As I’ve mentioned before, this post most definitely contains spoilers. Don’t ruin this magical story for yourself if you haven’t read it yet: go, read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and return only after your mind has been thoroughly blown.

Learning Subject–Verb Agreement from House-Elves

For most native speakers of English, subject–verb agreement is an automatic process. Most people don’t have to think about properly conjugating verbs when they are speaking, as subject–verb disagreements very obviously sound incorrect. In written language, however, or for non-native speakers of English, subject–verb agreement can be a bit more difficult to grasp.

Luckily for us, house-elves don’t have a great grasp of subject–verb agreement, either. Let’s take a look at some mistakes made by Dobby the house-elf to learn more about subject–verb agreement.

Socks are Dobby’s favourite, favourite clothes, sir! he said, ripping off his odd ones and pulling on Uncle Vernon’s. I has seven now, sir . . . but, sir . . .” he said, his eyes widening, having pulled both socks up to their highest extent, so that they reached to the bottom of his shorts, “they has made a mistake in the shop, Harry Potter, they is giving you two the same!”

Dobby starts off strong in the above quotation. Are is the correct form of to be to go with the noun socks, as socks is plural. I’m afraid, however, that it is grammatically all downhill from here. Because the subject in the second sentence is the first-person singular I, the verb form for to have should be have. Similarly, the next sentences should say they have and they gave. Though I’m sure you get the concept at this point, let’s look at two more examples, just because Dobby is adorable and we love him:

“But most wizards doesn’t want a house-elf who wants paying, miss.”

Correction: “But most wizards don’t want a house-elf who wants paying, miss.” Because the word wizards is plural, the correct form here is not does not (doesn’t), but do not (don’t). Just as most wizards do not want to pay their house-elves, most house-elves do not want to use proper grammar. That’s just the way of the wizarding world.

You has to eat this, sir! squeaked the elf, and he put his hand in the pocket of his shorts and drew out a ball of what looked like slimy, greyish green rat tails. “Right before you go into the lake, sir—Gillyweed!”

Correction: “You have to eat this, sir!” If the subject were a different pronoun—namely, he or she—then has would be correct. It turns out that when you’re saving someone’s neck by providing the answer to one of the Triwizard Tournament challenges, it doesn’t much matter how well you construct sentences. Who’d have thought?

Conclusion

Subject–verb agreement can be tricky, especially for non-native speakers of English. I hope this article has given you a greater understanding of this topic. If nothing else, I hope it has inspired you to treat your house-elves with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Remember to check out next week’s post, which will cover the use of ellipses in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and feel free to give Scribendi.com a shout on Facebook or Twitter to let me know how you’re liking this study of Harry Potter so far. Ten points to your house for anyone who can convincingly reach out to us using the syntax of a house-elf—personally, my bet is on Ravenclaw.

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