Either I or they is playing tricks with your head. Last week, we said that it’s OK to use “or” instead of “nor” with “neither.” (We didn’t say you had to, just that you could.)

Now, we’re about to tell why there is so much confusion over what verb tense to use with “either /neither” constructions.

When “either” or “neither” is alone, it’s supposed to take a singular verb: “Neither one is wrong.” But when there’s an intervening phrase, many people will use a plural: “Neither of the animals in the zoo have eaten.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says that usage is “quite common”; Garner’s Modern American Usage lists it at Stage 3 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning “quite common” but still not quite fully acceptable.

With “either or/neither nor” constructions, when subjects are either singular or plural, the verb matches the subject: “Either the tiger or the elephant is going to be fed soon”; “Neither the tigers nor the elephants are hungry.”

But what to do with a mixed marriage, when one subject is plural and the other singular?

The short answer: Location, location, location.

The very useful Purdue Online Writing Lab (also known as the OWL), says:

When two or more singular nouns or pronouns are connected by or or nor, use a singular verb.

The book or the pen is in the drawer.

When a compound subject contains both a singular and a plural noun or pronoun joined by or or nor, the verb should agree with the part of the subject that is nearer the verb.

The boy or his friends run every day.

His friends or the boy runs every day.

The Associated Press Stylebook agrees:

The nouns that follow these words do not constitute a compound subject; they are alternate subjects and require a verb that agrees with the nearer subject:

Neither they nor he is going. Neither he nor they are going.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is (as usual) a bit more nuanced:

When neither is the subject, the verb is singular: Neither of the cars is available.When neither and nor link singular terms, the verb is singular: Neither the car nor the truck is available. When neither and nor link a singular term and a plural one, put the plural term second and use a plural verb: Neither the car nor the trucks are available. If the mixture of terms and verbs gets awkward, recast the sentence: The car is not available, and neither are the trucks.

But because people are neither perfect nor grammar experts, many are confused when the two subjects are “I” and someone else. Thus many people will write “Either you or I are wrong about what verb to use here” on the mistaken belief that “you” and “I,” both being singular, demand a singular verb. Broken up, though, you can see that the phrase would be “I am wrong” or “you are wrong”; following our proximity rule, the correct phrase should be “either you or I am wrong.” Similarly, many people use plural verbs even when the closest subject is singular: “Either the tigers or that elephant are going to be fed next” should be “isgoing to be fed next,” because the elephant is closer to the verb (and maybe to dinner) than the tigers are.

That “mistake” is almost not one anymore; Garner’s lists that one, too, at Stage 3, the equivalent of a “C” in school. And that’s a passing grade in all but the strictest classes.

Either way, neither a worrier nor overthinker be.

 

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years.