Either . . . Or or Neither . . . Nor?

by Cherie Tucker

By now we all should know that subjects must agree with their verbs in number—singular with singular; plural with plural.  It’s fairly easy if you have only one subject doing something.  It’s those pesky compounds that cause the trouble. 

If the compound subjects (that means two or more) are joined by and, the subject becomes plural and requires a plural verb.  Jim and Bill are absent today.  Most people have no trouble with that.  However, the either . . . or and neither . . . nor constructions require some clarification.

If the subjects connected by either . . . or or neither . . . nor are each singular, then they require a singular verb.
Either steak or salmon is fine for the banquet.
Neither the vice president nor the secretary is here.

If the subjects are plural, it follows that they must have a plural verb.

Either the players or the managers have to take the blame.
Neither the cats nor the dogs are too fat.

Now comes the problem.  If one of the words in this combination is singular, but the other is plural, what should you do?  Here is the simple answer.  Make the verb agree in number with whichever word is closer to it.  Generally using the plural word last will make the sentence flow better.

Either Sam or his brothers are going to sing the tenor part.
Neither the manager nor the associates have a clue what is going on.

(You could write “Neither the associates nor the manager has a clue.”   That still follows the rule correctly, but sounds odd.  Remember to put the plural word last.)

Isn’t that easy?

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.  GrammarWorks@msn.com

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