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Neither was or neither were?

120pxMacmillan Dictionaries recently received a query about an example at the entry for the phrase ‘neither … nor …‘. The example was this one:

Neither his son nor his daughter were at the funeral.



The writer queried the presence of a plural verb in this example, believing this to be incorrect because neither, being singular, should be followed by a singular verb.

In his reply, our Editor-in-Chief Michael Rundell noted that: “It’s interesting that most dictionaries (e.g. Oxford, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage) don’t directly address this particular case.”

He went on to say that in order to reply to the question he did what we always do in situations like this, which is to look at the corpus evidence to see what people actually do when they use this formula. What he found from looking at a sample of about 200 relevant sentences in the British National Corpus is that it appears to be a more or less open choice, and speakers/writers use a singular or plural verb in roughly equal numbers.

So in the construction
-neither X nor Y + verb (when X and Y are both singular nouns or pronouns),
the verb which follows can be singular or plural.

Here are a few examples of each: these are all real sentences taken directly from the corpus:

+ plural verb

Neither Lorenzo nor I want to part, but …
A and B are not in the same place; neither A nor B are in Edinburgh;
Though neither Shelley nor she are pagans, that’s certain!
As you well know, Polly, neither Lord Byron nor I have any sense of humour.
Once again I would stress that neither my client nor I have made any approach to the company.

+ singular verb

Hence the possibility of saying, when neither speaker nor addressee is at home:
No conflict of interest arises where neither vendor nor lessor is a builder or developer.
But neither Anya nor Rainbow appears to notice.
Neither Dobson nor Hunter is eligible to play for Ulster in next season’s inter pros …

A larger and more recent corpus (the 2012 enTenTen corpus) actually shows a distinct preference for plural over singular verb following neither … nor …, suggesting that the plural-ness of the double subject is winning out over the singular-ness of neither.

You can find more articles on these kinds of topics in our “Real Grammar” series.  This is a series of articles and videos evaluating some well-known “rules” about grammar in light of the evidence of real usage.

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About the author

Liz Potter

10 Comments

  • I don’t know how to search online for proper usage of English language, but I’m wondering about the difference between, “This may take A WHILE,” and, “This may take AWHILE”. ( Microsoft Windows Updates uses the former, which seems wrong, to me.). Although not the subject of this blog, it appears to be the sort of issue that you address.
    Thanks!

  • Hi Carol. Thanks for your interesting query. Microsoft is actually correct on this occasion because what we have here are two things that look similar but are in fact different, although quite close in meaning. ‘A while’ with a space is a noun group which means ‘a period of time’; so when MS tells you ‘This may take a while’ they mean ‘This may take some time’ (so go and make yourself a coffee). ‘Awhile’ (one word) is an adverb meaning ‘for a short time’; it is usually used after a verb such as stop, stay, rest etc. Here are a few corpus examples that show the difference:

    This film has been on my radar for a while (=for some time)
    Allergies take a while (=take some time) to develop.
    Welcome! You must stay and browse awhile.
    You might like to stay awhile and explore this beautiful region.

    The confusion is increased by the fact that people very frequently write the noun group ‘a while’ as one word, and by the fact that the adverb ‘awhile’ is quite infrequent and becoming more so. It maybe that the adverb will gradually die out and we will be left with the noun group, but I think the distinction is worth maintaining for now.

    You can often find good objective usage information on the websites of major dictionaries, as well as on our blog, of course.

  • G’day.

    G’day,

    I am just curious about some of the examples Michael Rundell found for “+ plural verbs”. The subject of three of the five examples is “Neither xxx or I”. In these cases, are the following verbs, “want” and “have”, regarded as plural verbs?

    If the first example was “Neither Lorenzo nor I am prepared to part, but …”, then is the “am” regarded as a plural verb, too?

    The three examples seem to be not those of “+ plural verbs” but rather of “+ verb corresponding to a first-person singular subject”. Am I missing something?

    Cheers

  • Hi Satoru, thanks for your comment. Yes, I think those verbs must undoubtedly be regarded as plural. The subject in each case is not ‘I’ but ‘Neither X nor Y’ where both X and Y are singular nouns or pronouns. In the three cases you mention, Y happens to be ‘I’ but it could be any singular noun or pronoun. The fact that the second element is the first person singular pronoun is incidental; it could equally well be ‘Mary’ or ‘she’ or ‘his wife’.

    The question being addressed related to whether the subject “Neither X nor Y” should/must be followed by a singular verb, as the questioner believed, or whether it can be followed by either a singular or a plural verb. The evidence shows that both are possible and equally common.

  • Thank you, Liz.

    Perhaps I failed to make myself clear. I do not believe the subject “Neither X nor Y” should/must be followed by a singular verb.

    I was merely suggesting the three examples, in which the “Y” is the first person singular pronoun, might be distinguishable from other cases with “Neither X nor Y” subjects in that you can’t tell, where the “Y” is “I”, whether the following verb is singular or plural solely from the verb’s appearance as “I” happen (happens?) to take a singular verb that looks the same as its plural form, with the exception of “be”.

    I thought, therefore, it might be possible to regard the “want” and “have” in the three examples as singular nouns for the first person singular pronoun. Isn’t it possible to hypothesise that the verbs were influenced by the closer of the two elements of the subject, “I”, and took a form that corresponds to “I”, rather than simply taking a plural form?

    Let me make my point from a different angle. I believe (1) and (2) of three following sentences are fine and (3) is awkward. I guess you are saying the above three examples are in the same category as (1). I am suggesting they are possibly regarded as in category (2). Or is (2) uncommon in the first place?

    (1) Neither George and I are responsible for the damages.
    (2) Neither George and I am responsible for the damages.
    (3) Neither George and I is responsible for the damages.

    Cheers

  • Sorry, the last three sentences should read:

    (1) Neither George nor I are responsible for the damages.
    (2) Neither George nor I am responsible for the damages.
    (3) Neither George nor I is responsible for the damages.

  • Hi Satoru: I see what you mean, in that there is potential for confusion as a result of the fact that the verb forms for first person singular and for the plural are generally indistinguishable. The fact is that in the situation you describe, ‘Neither… is’ and ‘Neither … are’ are equally frequent, while 2 – ‘Neither…. am’ – is not just uncommon, it is not found at all in the very large corpus we use. Indeed if I saw it in text I was editing I would correct it, because in standard English verbs have to agree with the subject, and whether the subject here is singular or plural it is definitely not first person singular, because there is always another person (or thing) involved.

  • Thank you, Liz. I see my premise that “Neither X nor I am” is common was wrong. I searched Corpus of Contemporary American English and found only one such instance:

    “It was a little ironic, since neither David nor I am what you’d call your typical Jackson skier.”

    On the other hand, there were 12 and 6 instances of “Neither X nor I are” and “Neither X nor I is” respectively. Interestingly, the subject of two of the latter six was “Neither you and I is”, where neither of the two elements of the subject corresponds (or correspond!?) to the verb, which seems to suggest that in “Nether X nor I is” cases the subjects were taken as “one chunk”.

    Now I see the whole point. Can this “Neither X nor Y” issue be summarised as whether you native speakers see it as two elements or one chunk?

    Cheers

  • Hello again Satoru and thank you for raising such interesting questions. I think there is some doubt or confusion as to how this ‘neither … nor..’. structure should behave: we’re told that ‘neither’ is singular, yet the subject of the verb in these cases seems so clearly plural. It’s interesting that your corpus findings bear this out: the preponderance of plural verbs (albeit in a small number of citations over all) suggests that the ‘pluralness’ of the multiple subject outweighs for many the ‘singularness’ of ‘neither’. So it seems that some people see it as a chunk while others (perhaps more?) don’t. As a native speaker myself I’m no longer sure which I would use spontaneously, but I have to say that the original example that provoked the question seemed completely natural and correct to me and that corpus evidence bears that intuition out.

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