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
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
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
Neither the manager nor the associates have a clue what is
(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