Either/or Neither/Nor

by Cherie Tucker

There are only a few rules regarding these combinations, and fortunately they are easy.  First, put your fingers on your adam’s apple and say, “elephant.”  Do you feel it move (your adam’s apple, not the elephant.)  That movement is called a glottal stop, and you must keep the glottal stops of the beginnings of “either” and “or” together.  If you start with “either,” you cannot go to “nor.” Conversely, you must keep the ns together if you start with “neither.”  Do not combine them incorrectly.  
            You may ask either Judy or Linda to the party.
            If neither Judy nor Linda can come, then ask your cousin.
Next,  if you are comparing singular words with either/or or neither/nor, you must use a singular verb, even though you are discussing two subjects.  It’s as if the word either is the subject of the sentence, not the two names.
            Either Jim or William is available.  
If both the words are plural in the either/or or neither/nor construction, use a plural verb.
            Neither the boys nor the girls were available.
Most people don’t have trouble with the examples above, but what if you are comparing a singular and a plural word connected with either/or or neither/nor?  Which verb would you need?  Here is the final rule:  The verb must agree with the closer subject. If you are comparing a singular and a plural word, place the plural word last and use a plural verb.
            Neither Ms. Jones nor the twins see the reason for the rule.
You could put the singular word last and use a singular verb, but even if it could be considered correct, it usually feels wrong.
            Neither the twins nor Ms. Jones sees the reason for the rule.
When written this way, it seems as if you should use a plural verb because you have what appears to be two subjects, which usually makes the subject plural.  In the either/or neither/nor combinations, however, that isn’t the case. The singular or plural subjects determine the verb.   By putting the plural word last, the sentence flows better.
Only three rules. Told you this one was 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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