Macmillan 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.Email this Post