Subject/verb agreement can be confusing when we use either…or or neither…nor couplets.As we’re presenting a noun phrase with multiple objects, it seems natural to use a plural, but the verb may often be in the singular. This depends on the nouns included; the option between two (either one or the other) does not create a plural on its own. Here’s why.

How subject/verb agreement works with either…or and neither…nor

When we use either…or and neither…nor, we present a choice between two different options. The suggestion is that one of these options will complete the action, so when we have a choice between two singular objects, the verb can only be done by one of them. Hence, though we have two nouns, the verb should then be singular:

  • Either my mum or my dad is cooking dinner. (not are cooking)
  • Neither the dog nor the cat eats cheese. (not eat cheese)

To make more sense of this, look what happens when we assign the action to both nouns within the choice: Either my mum is cooking dinner or my dad is cooking dinner. It is possible that they could both complete the action, but we use either to indicate only one of them will.

This said, however, you may find that with informal English a plural is used. As the examples above demonstrate, this isn’t strictly grammatically accurate, but English users are not always bothered about strict grammatical accuracy, so it can be acceptable in informal settings.

The choice between two plural nouns is simpler, as the verb should always be in the plural.

  • Either the chairs or the boxes have to be moved. (not has to be)
  • Neither lions nor tigers make good pets. (not makes)

Again, these statements would work with the full verb assigned to each noun.

  • Neither lions make good pets nor tigers make good pets.

Either/Neither with Mixed Singulars and Plurals

A complication to these rules comes when one choice is singular and the other is plural. In this case, the general rule is that the verb should agree with the closest noun. In other words, when the either/neither phrase comes before the verb, the verb should agree with the second option.

  • Either Rachel or her sisters were telling a lie.
  • Either the bikes or the car is getting sold.
  • Neither Rachel nor her sisters were telling the truth.
  • Neither the musicians nor the conductor is ready for the performance.

Though this is the rule we aim for (to be grammatically correct), it can sound a little strange to the ear, as there is an option of a plural completing the action, but no plural verb. For this reason some English speakers may (albeit erroneously) use a plural verb with either/neither statements using mixed singulars and plurals, regardless of which is closer to the verb. Rather than risk being technically incorrect, if you wish to use a plural in these instances it’s best to simply reorder the choice to make sure the plural is closest to the verb.

  • Either the car or the bikes are getting sold.

As a final thought, if you assign a verb to each choice, of course, it should agree with whichever noun you assign it to:

  • Either Rachel was telling the truth or her sisters were.

Let me know if you’ve got any questions!

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