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Either, Neither, and Subject-Verb Agreement

September 12, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 13, 2015

Have you ever struggled with either or neither, wondering if they referred to subjects singular or plural, wondering if they took singular or plural verbs?

Have you looked up either and neither only to find competing rules about their use, about whether they are indeed singular or plural?

Let’s look at both words and settle the issue of subject-verb agreement when they’re used as subjects. (There are other uses of either and neither, but we’re going to focus on only the one issue in this article.)

Here’s a tip that should prove helpful: there are different conditions to consider when you make your decisions about whether either and neither are singular or plural.

Under one condition, both words are always singular and take a singular verb.

Under the other condition, the choice between singular and plural will depend not only on the words either and neither, but on other words in your sentence as well.

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Condition One

Either and neither are pronouns. But they can also be conjunctions (correlative), adjectives, determiners, and even adverbs. When either word is used as a pronoun and as the subject of a sentence or clause—and it’s the only subject—it takes a singular verb. When one of the words is used to modify the single subject of a sentence, it takes a singular verb.

Let’s look at examples. I’ve included quite a few—several with similar wordings. Don’t be distracted by other words in the sentence—under the condition I outlined, both either and neither are singular, and they require singular verbs.

Note that in a question format, the helping verb is the word that will be singular.

Either diamond is a good choice.

Neither sandwich tastes good.

Neither was a very good singer.

Neither were very good singers. X

Neither one is a favorite of mine.

Neither one are favorites. X

Either one of your brothers seems capable of doing the work.

Neither of my brothers wants to be left at home.

Either of you is welcome any day.

Either of you are welcome any day. X

Neither of us considers you unimportant.

Does either option require a signature?

Does either boy want breakfast?

Do either boy want breakfast? X

Does either of the boys want breakfast?

Do either of the boys want breakfast? X

Does either one of the boys want breakfast?

Does either one want breakfast?

Does either want breakfast?

Neither wants breakfast.

Neither want breakfast. X

Neither brother wants breakfast.

Neither of the brothers wants breakfast.

Neither of the brothers want breakfast. X

Neither one wants breakfast.

Does neither have a license?

Do neither have a license? X

So neither has a license.

So neither have a license. X

Doesn’t either of them want to go?

Don’t either of them want to go? X

Doesn’t either of your kids want dessert?

Don’t either of your kids want dessert? X

Does either of you want to go with me?

Do either of you want to go with me? X

Is either of your daughters a doctor?

Is either daughter a doctor?

Are either of your daughters a doctor? X

Are either daughter a doctor? X

Are either daughters doctors? X

Has neither of them been a good fit?

Have neither of them been a good fit? X

Was neither a good choice?

Were neither a good choice? X

 

Some of these that are right don’t sound right to the ear, do they? And some that are incorrect sound correct. But they are correct or incorrect as marked. At least grammatically correct or incorrect.

Those that truly sound wrong are the examples with the preposition of (of your daughters, of yours) following either or neither. But either and neither are still singular, even when followed by a prepositional phrase containing a plural object.

 

The Caveat

Most of the time we want to be grammatically correct. Yet correct isn’t always our first goal. In fiction we want our characters to speak (and think) as they actually would. Would your characters always speak correctly? That’s up to you to decide. But many 3-D people speak sentences that would be considered incorrect in terms of proper grammar, so fictional characters can definitely do the same. (I’m pretty sure that I regularly use several of these examples incorrectly when I say similar sentences.)

Still, it pays to know what is considered correct.

If you’re using the omniscient POV, you’ll probably want your narrator to use proper grammar. And if you’re writing for the business world, for a news organization, or for a school course—if you’re writing nonfiction—choose correct grammar unless you’re using improper grammar on purpose, maybe to create an effect or prove a point.

 

Condition Two

The second condition kicks in when there are alternative subjects that share a single verb. In this case we’re talking about two subjects linked by or or nor.

Look for the either/or and neither/nor constructions.

Under this condition, the verb is singular or plural based on the subject closest to the verb. If the subject closest to the verb is singular, use a singular verb. If the closest subject is plural, use a plural verb.

If both subjects are singular or both plural, the choice for the verb is easy. It’s when one subject is singular and the other plural that you have to pay attention.

Either his mother or my sisters are singing in the pub tonight.

Either my sisters or his mother is singing in the pub tonight.

Neither his mother nor my sisters are singing in the pub tonight.

Neither my sisters nor his mother is singing in the pub tonight.

Either Larry or Brad holds the record.

Either Larry or one of his brothers holds the record. (one of his brothers, not plural brothers)

Either Larry or the Wilson boys hold the record.

Neither the accountant nor his clients know the combination.

Neither the clients nor the accountant knows the combination.

Neither the horses nor the jockeys have ever raced on that particular track.

Neither the jockeys nor the horses have ever raced on that particular track.

In this second condition, readers might be bothered by a plural subject being followed by a singular verb. You can head off potential problems by putting the plural subject second and using a plural verb.

The first sentence in this next example isn’t wrong, so you wouldn’t have to change it. But you could change the word order.

Either the three elephants or the lone tiger is going to be cut from the second act.

Either the lone tiger or the three elephants are going to be cut from the second act.

Keep in mind that we’re talking subjects that share a verb. If each subject has its own verb, that’s a different scenario and a different use of either.

Either you tell me, or I’ll turn you in for the reward money.

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So pair either and neither with singular verbs under the first condition and match the subject closest to the verb for the second condition. In fiction, use your judgment about characters using improper grammar with either or neither. But do at least recognize when the the grammar isn’t standard or may be questionable.

I hope these examples prove clear and helpful. If you have questions, please ask. Or if you have any tips of your own to share, please include them in the comment section.

We’ll consider other uses of either and neither in another article.

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9 Responses to “Either, Neither, and Subject-Verb Agreement”

  1. Kathy M says:

    The either/neither question I run into most often in real life is which of the following is correct: Me neither or me either?

    • Kathy, some people do say me either when they mean me neither. (From what I can tell, this is more common in AmE than in BrE.)

      Yet if you use either in place of neither in such a case (and without another negative word), you’re omitting the negative part of your reply. To convey the negative, use me neither.

      Responses that would mean something similar all contain a negative component—

      I don’t either.
      I can’t either.
      I wouldn’t either.
      Neither do I.
      Not me either.

      We wouldn’t say—

      I do either.
      I can either.
      I will either.
      Either do I.
      Me either.

      Include a negative component.

  2. Lou Sanders says:

    Grammar Girl wasn’t very helpful with these subject-complement agreement sentences. Which would be your picks, Beth, and why?

    1) “They visited each other’s shrine” or “They visited each other’s shrines.”

    2) “We help clients get the most out of their life” or “We help clients get the most out of their lives”?

    3) “The writers complained that their neck was sore” or “The writers complained that their necks were sore”?

    4) “They shook their head,” or “They shook their heads”?

    5) “Both men relied heavily on their wife” or “Both men relied heavily on their wives”?

    • Lou, I liked the three options she quoted from Barbara Walraff. If it isn’t clear, rewriting is always an option. Even if something is technically correct, if it isn’t clear, rewriting would be the best option. Being right is worthless if your audience can’t follow what you’re trying to say.

      ———

      Bryan Garner, in The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, notes that the noun that follows each other’s is often plural even though “the logical construction is singular.”

      What that means to me is that we usually use the plural, no matter what makes more sense. One of his examples is “each other’s car.”

      I can certainly see this use for this particular example, yet I can just as easily see something such as they wanted to drive each other’s cars.

      For fiction, we’d use the words the viewpoint character would use, so either would be acceptable.

      As for your examples, my personal choices follow—

      1) “They visited each other’s shrines”—I like the feel and sound of the plural here, though the singular is obviously not wrong. But I don’t imagine that many readers would have trouble with the plural. Such a wording is fairly common—perhaps idiomatic.

      2) “We help clients get the most out of their lives”—they don’t share a life.

      3) “The writers complained that their necks were sore”—they don’t share a neck.

      4) “They shook their heads”—they definitely don’t share one head.

      5) “Both men relied heavily on their wives”—unless we’re talking two men married to the same woman, go with wives.

      Yes, I know that the plural could imply that the clients have multiple lives, the writers have multiple necks, the unnamed they have multiple heads, and the men each have multiple wives, but I think the misreading is less likely with the plurals than with the singulars.

      That is, a misreading is possible either way. I simply see misreading to be less likely with the plurals.

      Also, see this SAT resource for subject-complement agreement. It contains some of the same examples. (These examples get around, don’t they?)

      ———-

      There is no one absolute answer here. Write for clarity and for a fit to the writing project (novel, article, thesis).

  3. Lou Sanders says:

    She said that style guides don’t really address subject-complement agreement.

    I see why! LOL.

  4. November 21, ’16

    Very helpful, but can I refer you to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (13th edn), p. 518, subsection 4 where it gives an example ‘Neither the Conservative figures nor the evidence of Labour’s recovery since 1993 produce any sense of inexorable movement in political fortunes’, Times 1985.
    I would reverse the order here and start with Evidence of Labour’s recovery . . . nor the Conservative figures . . .

  5. jaz says:

    what is Problem in subject and verb number choice?

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